[originally written on September 11, 2012]
“I believe that the witnesses, especially the survivors, have the most important role. They can simply say, in the words of the prophet, ‘I was there.’ What is a witness if not someone who has a tale to tell and lives only with one haunting desire: to tell it. Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future. After all, God is God because he remembers.”
It was a Monday night. I had next to my bed a small clock radio that I would listen to in the late evenings. My young mind was hungry for information about the world. I was a young 16 year old, my birthday was just last Thursday. So there I was, intently tuning into the BBC World Service (rebroadcast on NPR) when I should have instead been sleeping. As my father would ceaselessly remind me, tomorrow I must go to school. But the world beaconed. From around the globe, an authoritative English voice told me of the great affairs of state. Why, just a few days prior, the Americans and the Israelis were shouted out from the UN conference on racism. And from a distant corner of the world, just beyond the reach of the armies of Alexander the Great, came a footnote of history. The leader of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance of Afghanistan was dead. Killed. The journalist noted in the brief obituary, that he had, while living, developed a close relationship with the United States. But he was now dead. The reporter did not speculate on what this would mean for future American involvement in the troubled Central-Asian country of Afghanistan.
And as soon as that story was done, I tapped the button, switched off the radio, and drifted off into a dreamless slumber. At least it was dreamless because only the next morning, most of my inessential thoughts were swept aside by events in the wider world. For I lived a protected life in the Valley of Plenty. What did I know of the rest of the world other than what was selectively piped into my safe home?
I was asleep. And my father came into my room, urgently telling me to get up, for, “An airplane hit the World Trade Center.” In my sleepiness, the most I could muster was, “Again?” (There is a short yet interesting history of such accidents; tall buildings pose a natural hazard to airplanes.) Minutes later, he returned, and switched on my stereo. Soon, as I awoke, I began to understand what was happening.
I dressed and descended the staircase. There, I saw my father, a pillar of masculinity, of strength, in a trance, fixated upon the televisions. It didn’t matter what channel, the broadcast was the same: a lone tower, silhouetted against a smoky backdrop. When I consulted the archives, I learned that this was between 7am and 7:30am, Pacific Time.
And I witnessed the second tower fall. On Live television.
What else did I witness?
I saw my father, a native New Yorker who grew up on 5th Street, express a desire to, “bomb them all.” I knew then exactly whom he meant. Muslims. Arabs. Those barbarians from an ancient corner of the Earth who did this. My father was identifying the hitherto unidentified perpetrators as worse than evil. These were people who barely deserved the designation of human, men who gave credence to the theory of common decent. Men who stretched high ideals of due process and rule of law to the breaking point. Their barbarism enticed us, enticed my father, to return to that pre-civilized day and age of living by the sword and dying by the sword.
I saw the other youths in fear. Like the young people in nations around the world.
I saw my sister glued to the television for four solid days.
I saw my Church give the greatest sermons they would deliver in a generation.
And I saw my nation start down a troubling path. Do not mistake me: I hated Saddam Hussein and openly cheered when he was toppled. We may have taken Iraq, smashed the Taliban, and scattered Al-Qaeda. Osama bin-Laden’s body was quietly dumped off the deck of an aircraft-carrier into the Indian Ocean. But only a few of us have fully realized what that clear day in September really did to our nation. On that day, we were sucked out of a 136-year peace. It was, and is, a jolting wake-up call to how the rest of the world lives. It is a reminder of how humanity has lived for millennia.
Peace, the sort of state that I and my countrymen have known, is aberrant in human history. War and death is the standard, armies sweeping through your lands like clockwork. We take it for granted that we can have political opinions without fearing for our lives. We take it for granted that we do not need to have political opinions at all.
And on a human scale, it is difficult to see a way out. But then again, one of my closest friends did call me an escapist…