What September 11 Taught Me About How Much America Cares About Its Own.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was sitting in my AP US History Class in Valley Stream, New York. A girl from our class came upstairs from dropping off attendance to tell us that everyone in the office was crying and that something horrible had happened but she didn’t know what. Shortly thereafter, our principal came over the PA to tell us that all schools in New York City and surrounding areas were on lockdown, the school was shutting down immediately and we were all to go directly home. News and rumours started spreading like wildfire and then another teacher came in to inform our teacher of what had happened. I remember her collapsing into tears because her husband worked for Time Magazine at the time and his office was in the building right next to the World Trade Centre towers. Other classmates began crying as it started to sink in that their parents or family members worked in or around the city. Initially we didn’t know it was a terrorist attack on American soil. We heard early reports of a plane accidently flying into the building. As we filled out and left the school, I distinctly remember being able to see the first tower burning from the third floor as the front of my school had a clear view towards Manhattan. It wasn’t until I got to the pizzeria on the corner of Merrick Blvd and Central Ave and walked in to see the second plane fly clearly into the second tower that we all knew this was not an accident. The pizzeria was packed and dead silent. Everyone stood frozen in their tracks as New Yorkers, trying to process what we were watching right before our eyes. I remember walking home in a complete daze. I had never witnessed anything like that in my life and because it was happening live, there was no censoring of anything. When I got home, my dad was sitting on the couch watching CNN. I walked in and we both sat silently and watched what was happening. We watched as human beings jumped from the highest floors of the towers, some burning alive as they did. Then in horror, we watched both towers completely collapse in on themselves. We witnessed people die in real time right in front of us on tv.
I have been permanently scarred by the events of September 11. I’m low key convinced I may have some sort of PTSD from it. As a 16 year immigrant from Canada, I had never in my life witnessed anything like that. While most children in North America have been privileged enough to never have to witness that outside of 9/11, I completely acknowledge that there are children living in war torn countries that see these atrocities all the time. But for me, this was beyond my comprehension and especially that it was happening on US soil. At the time, I felt the same way a lot of Americans did; that America, the land of the free and home of the brave was impenetrable. We had (and still have) the best military force in the entire world, bar none. We had the best intelligence agencies in the world and were a super power when it came to atomic and nuclear capabilities. In my mind and in the mind of many others, the likelihood of a real attack that was going to cause significant damage was slim to none. How arrogant and wrong we all were.
19 years later, I find myself reflecting on the events that ensued right after the initial tragedy and making similar comparisons to what is currently happening with the Black Lives Matter movement of today. I remember in the first few days, weeks and months after the day the twin towers fell there were so many fundraisers and telethons, and big corporations donating money to firefighters and police departments funds for the family members of fallen public servants. The outpouring of love, sympathy and empathy was immense. In the weirdest way, it was the best time to be an American. And the worst if you were a South Asian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh or a Middle Eastern American. I remember one of my Muslim friends’ uncles’ 7-Eleven being firebombed. She came to school and broke down in a mess of tears because she was so upset. My Muslim female friends were terrified to come to school or go out anywhere because some of them were receiving death threats. One of my friends told me a story of how some white people in a truck had tried running her and her family off of the road when they were just driving home on the highway. It was the most dichotomous time for me because as an American citizen, I felt an intense sense of patriotism to America after witnessing what had happened on 9/11; and yet I was torn because I had friends whose experiences of American patriotism and nationalism in the times of Bush were very frightening. I’m ashamed to admit this but I remember at the time feeling a slight sense of relief that, if even for a little while, the spotlight of hatred wasn’t shining on Black people as brightly in that moment. It wasn’t that I wanted anyone else to experience the racism and hatred that Black people face everyday by some White Americans-I just wanted a break from it for Black people. The weight and load of carrying that everyday is oh so heavy, so any relief however temporary was welcome for me.
While there was an immense outpouring of support and funds for the heroes of September 11th, one year later none of that support or money was anywhere to be found. The same heroes who went down to ground zero and dug up dead body parts while breathing in asbestos and the worst toxins into their lungs, would eventually die due to lack of healthcare funding to get them assistance. Michael Moore did an incredible documentary outlining all of this in Fahrenheit 9/11. All of those corporations and companies who preached unity and Americana and made billions off of the war that ensued between the US and (insert middle eastern country name here) were nowhere to be found a few short years later. Firefighters, policeman and women and first responders died because the American government and Wall Street just couldn’t collectively give enough of a shit to help our own people. John Stewart in 2019 gave one of the most emotionally impassioned speeches I have ever seen to Congress. As a New Yorker, I felt his pain, anger, rage and frustration that 18 years after 9/11 people were still fighting for the continuation of benefits for the first responders of that day. But his white tears of anger must have shamed Congress enough into acting, because the very next day they passed the Bill he had been fighting for into law so he would never have to fight this particular fight again. I think about all the first responders who have died between 2002 and 2019 that I’m sure would have loved the continuation of their health benefits. Or for anyone to care. And based on how I have seen America treat it’s heroes of one of the worst days in American history, I have little faith that without a completely progressive remodelling of how American politics functions that true change is going to come to the Black community.
This is why the protesting must continue. We must continue to march, yell, scream, and fight for our equal rights as Black citizens whose ancestors built the United States for free. We must never tire or grow weary in this fight. We must uplift each other and welcome accomplices who have joined the fight for our equality. Because one thing is for damn sure: it will NOT be given to us by Congress or any governing body. Systemic anti-Black racism is real and rampant in every level of the judicial system, because it was built that way. If we want real, lasting change we as aligned citizens must do what John Stewart and people like him have done: Not stop until the job is done and we get what we want.
To the 2,977 souls that were lost 19 years ago today in New York City, Washington, DC and outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania, I want you to know I have never forgotten you. You are my “lest we forget” moment in history and I will never fail to remember any of you. I’ve shed so many tears for every last one of you over the years and will for the rest of my life. Your stories and legacies will never be forgotten. I’m so very sorry your lives had to end in the way they did because no one should die like that. But I’m grateful for the ways you’ve taught me to be a better American citizen. Thank you all for the gift of the pain of loss that teaches me gratitude every single day. I love and appreciate you. Rest peacefully in the arms of Love and Grace.