Where Were You When…

Photo by Scott Hudson

There’s an Alan Jackson song Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning? that was released shortly after the day that we all now refer to as 9/11. The media this week has been in a frenzy of reflections, recollections, and other reminders in case we forgot that it’s been 10 years since our lives as people on this planet changed. Where you.. people used to ask about first finding out about Pearl Harbor, the announcement of Victory in Europe, or Kennedy’s assassination. This generation’s version of moments in history is that morning of orchestrated chaos.

I was in the chair at my eye doctor’s wondering why the doctor came in gasping “They said on the news someone hit the twin towers, I feel like someone just robbed me.” I hadn’t been to New York yet on my own, only with family, so we never did the tourist sites because our family friends had said “Oh, you don’t want to go there (Statue of Liberty, downtown), it’s so boring.” So I didn’t know what exactly she meant but I got into my car and NPR said something had crashed into the Pentagon. There was another missing plane somewhere in Pennsylvania. This is the end of the world, I thought to myself, as I cancelled a meeting and drove back to campus where I was a Hall Director for undergraduate students. On campus I watched with other staff and worried students as the second plane slammed into the tower. And then we went to an session of chapel, when everyone one campus, staff, faculty, or student who may have never before darkened its door, crammed into the wooden rows for information, comfort, protection against being alone.

We still talk about 9/11 in a way that makes it feel hot, immediate, the rush of those first moments that morning of incredibility not because what happens in America affects everyone else (though the recent sub prime mortgage crisis triggering a global economic meltdown might make a forceful argument for us that this true) but because as the result of the actions of a few, the rest of us had to rethink our approach to the safety of airline travel, communication with loved ones, and those who took issue with the Great Satan, all things American.

In addition to two wars, a new kind of prejudice, heartbreak, and shock, we gained a new vocabulary around that day: Ground Zero is the site of where the buildings known as the World Trade Center once stood. Al Qaeda, then a fringe group of radical extremists, was the subject of more discussions world wide than any boy band; led by a breaded Yemeni cave dweller, their leader was catapulted as a household name.

The sight of each of people jumping from the 100+ stories of the World Trade Center to avoid a fiery death – including a couple holding hands – put a new slant to the party game “Would You Rather.” All human life is precious and the nearly 3000 people who lost their lives going about their daily business while others decided to draw them into a global fight between two philosophies of life and religion, were what security services would call “collateral damage” in a growing open sore that was now center stage. After all, this was not the first time the World Trade Center had been under attack. The car bomb in the 1993 killed 5 people but left the towers standing.

What Al Qaeda had miscalculated was that the very act they intended in full cinematic Hollywood style, to be their postcard of hate, slamming one jet into a building so that all international media were covering it live by the time the second jet arrived, was also the same memento used to galvanize military, public opinion, and knee jerk reactions. The image of that day, of papers flying, smoke rising from downtown Manhattan are still used (absent from this blog on purpose) to refresh the sense of shock, injustice, sensationalism. Al Qaeda  succeeded in drawing out their enemy by throwing down a pictorial gauntlet that could not be refused into a war that glamorized their self-described “martyrdom”, a martyrdom the majority of other followers of their religion not only disagreed with but abhorred.

Photo by Jayel Aherem

Yet the 4 trillion dollars that could have been spent on a flagging economy, Iraqis trapped in their homes without access to medical care, the hundreds of amputees and PST survivors amongst the service men and women do not have the same media profile. And the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan in the 10 years of war to quell Al Qaeda seems to another form of collateral damage that will largely go unrecorded in the collective memory. People like Rudy Guiliani won’t come right out and say is acceptable, but come close, with statements such as “there is no limit to defending oneself, unless it’s irresponsible spending” on  a recent interview with Hard Talk on the BBC World Service.

Ten years on, let’s remember them, the innocents who have gotten in the cross-hairs of this brawl not just in those towers but also on the streets of Iraq, the villages of Afghanistan; soldiers following orders, civilians living their lives.

Other things happened on 9/11 before 2001. Let’s remember them as well, untainted by this scar of history; babies were born, couples were married. And others died — in other places — even in other places in that very city. Not to diminish the losses of those on that day, but rather to put them in perspective of a life, of human history, of all suffering and celebration. This is not only what they deserve but also what the rest of our lives demand if we are going to move forward to fashion a new kind of relationship between ourselves and those around us: Muslim, Christian, Jew, Hindu, American, Saudi, Iraqi, Afghani. We the living must do something different if our lives were spared for no other reason than to course correct.

What’s important is that we do not rehearse our anger or struggle against the regrets that come with hindsight. Rather that we draw together in remembrance that but for the grace of God we could have been on one of those planes, one of those floors, one of those villages, or streets.

If Al Qaeda was counting on America’s media machine to make this a fight that had to be entered; the rush to print memorabilia with the towers on it even in the first 3 days after they came down;  the emphasis on the stories of the individuals — workers, firefighters, police officers — then every day that we draw together as a group to look ahead to the world we want to live in is a day that the extremists on both sides can’t claim as a victory.
Where were you? And what other important things have happened in your life on this day?


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