Twenty years ago, I was immersed in books and awaiting a call from Temple University’s Financial Aid Office to discuss my scholarship and talk about student loans. I got the call. The financial aid representative seemed not there. We were going over my file and she finally asked, “are federal buildings shutting down in New Jersey too?”
I found the question odd and told her that I had no idea and asked if she meant that as promised the Bush administration was shrinking the federal government. “No, a plane crashed into the World Trade Center. And no one knows what is going on. Is on the news.” What channel? “All of them.”
I hung up and turn on the TV. Three or five minutes into watching the news the second plane hit the towers. I couldn’t believe it. At that moment there was no doubt the United States was under attack. I told my then wife.
I packed my military gear and called my National Guard unit to report and to try to get some news. “Nothing yet. Stand by ready in case the governor activates us.”
I walked to my car to get my gear in the trunk. I heard a loud boom and I looked up. Two F 16 jet fighters were now patrolling the skies and their circuit place them right above our apartment in New Brunswick. That was normal, planes going to Newark and JFK flew high above us all day. Now there were only those two F 16s, and for days they would be there. For a couple weeks there were no commercial flights above us.
That day some of our friends called, others showed up at our apartment, we called all our friends from grad school attending Rutgers University. They were scared the vast majority being international students. We invited them home and I cooked for them as we watched the news and tried to make sense of what was happening.
That was a long Tuesday. The incertitude, what was going on, not knowing what would happen felt like wearing a straight jacket.
I don’t remember even going to bed and probably stayed awake until the next day trying to get more news and find all the online available information on Al-Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden, Afghanistan…
Those days and in the weeks to come I tried to write but I couldn’t. I was angry and scared. And I couldn’t write anything expressing my thoughts. That was the first time I tried to write other than academic assignments- and I couldn’t do it.
That same Saturday we went with a group of friends to still-smoldering, dusty, smokey, and shaken New York City. We brought whatever we collected to donate to the rescuers. We reached the police and military cordon at Battery Park. A city bus packed with national guard soldiers passed us by and the multitude cheered them. They look tired and scared but waved and smiled at us and off the bus went towards Ground Zero.
We visited firehouses and looked at the pictures of fire fighters missing. Candles and flowers adorned the buildings. We saw pictures and print out of people missing. They would never be found.
People gathered around firehouses, and parks. What I remember the most was the feeling of unity, but unity for peace, not war. In most vigils someone would start playing a guitar and the crowd would sign John Lennon’s Give peace a Chance. I felt proud and hopeful that we would do the right thing.
From the ruins of the World Trade Center President Bush would launch a manhunt and the beginning of two decades of war. He promised that it wasn’t a war on Islam but on terror. I wanted to believe it. Just like I wanted to believe that the rescuers would find survivors from under the ruins; that we would get the perpetrators, be done with, and the world would be a better place in a couple of years.
But the opposite was true. The attacks turned into an opportunity to extend the American imperial reach and the wars we started were built upon unauthentic premises and supported with false promises of bringing democracy to the Middle East.
We launched what we were warned the terrorists wanted – a clash of civilizations. One that no one would win and instead fomented a deep hatred between us and the people of the countries we invaded. And it did more than that, that same hatred intensified the culture wars within the United States. It activated and empowered the worst of our society- bigotries of all kinds, intolerance.
The first days, weeks, and months after September 11, 2001, the United States was united like it had not been since World War II. The world was on our side too. This could’ve ended right there and then. But our leaders hawkishly tried to extract political gains from it and squandered the world’s support and sympathy. And at home, the ugly face of xenophobia and racism once more became mainstream. Twenty years after September 11, we have a country divided like it hasn’t been since the Civil War. We have not been weakened by our enemies, real or imaginary, we have done it ourselves.
One can only hope that we start healing those fractures and that the lessons of these past twenty years are finally learned.