Remembering September 11th in the Context of War
When September 11th, 2001 came, I had been out of AIT for only a month. New York City was not just a place I'd lived, but a best beloved home I had left behind only a few short weeks ago, for the start of my work at a military intelligence facility. One of my friends from training had come with me to my new post, and it was he that was banging on my barracks door that morning, while I, with a brown t-shirt and one black boot sock on, peeked around the door. I don't remember what he told me, other than that it was important, I threw on my BDU bottoms and went next door. We watched the television in silence, and my first thought was that he'd been up too late and left a movie on. It was real-but unlike people all over the country, we didn't have the luxury of huddling around our television sets. We had duty in less than half an hour, and we knew more than ever, we had to be there. I brought along a little pocket radio for the walk, just to listen. My father went to work every day under the World Trade Center. I had no idea if he was okay. The phone lines into New York were shut down. When we got to the gates of the facility, I had to throw my radio away-nothing allowed inside, and even those few steps without news were killing me until I got inside the building.
It was there, in the controlled resolve, that my own resolve began to harden. When they switched us to reversing shifts, so that if we became a target, only half of us would be killed at any one time. We knew we were at war. We didn't know with who, but we knew. Bases were locked down, and if you didn't have a cellphone, you weren't going everywhere. I had lots of time to be angry-to think about the attack striking right to our heart. My high school, Stuyvesant, was blocks from the World Trade and World Financial centers. Every day, after school, we would walk the meandering path from school to the bookstore, from which we would enter the Trade Center and walk to the Financial Center. Every step of that path was known to me. It was what I had used, on long ruck marches, to accustom myself to the night walk. "Now I am walking past the Sbarros. Now I am walking past the PATH trains. Now I am walking past the nice security guard.." They don't list fatalities like that. "Nice security guard who was kind to the kids" doesn't make it into any casualty lists. It was two days before I was able to find out my dad was still alive, thanks to a hangover and oversleeping.
I was full of vengeance. I wanted to get Them. Whoever They were, they had to pay for what they had done. They had to pay for what they had done to my city, to my country, to my heart, to my innocence. I only wished I could track them down myself. Bloodthirsty, I couldn't conceive then of any world in which I might examine complexities. Just like the rest of the country, I wanted us to strike back.
I'm asked sometimes how I feel about Afghanistan, and my answer is always complex. Do I think it's a just war? I don't know, was World War I just? Someone assassinates the Archduke Ferdinand and Serbia doesn't want to open her country to international investigations. How different is that, exactly, from someone flying planes into the Towers and the Pentagon, and Afghanistan not wanting to open her country to international investigations? Now, from hindsight, a lot of people say that isn't an excuse for war. But then what is? It's an internationally recognized excuse for war-the spark that lit The War To End All Wars. War is always the last resort of failed diplomacy. Iraq is simple-it's simple to say that we were lied into Iraq. But Afghanistan is a little tougher. I think about it, the day before September 11th. I think about it, in the context of my faded dreams of vengeance, and I have no answers yet, only questions. I, too, wanted to see al-Qaeda punished, wanted to see Osama bin Laden dragged from his fabled caves and publicly crucified. But it's been nine years, and I don't know what to think. Have we come even one bit closer? Are we even looking anymore? What's our goal? Like a hundred years ago, we've lost sight of the original goals in this conflict that threatens to expand to the entire region.
All I know is that I've seen the effects of the nine years since September 11th, and the biggest damage has not been in the loss of the towers, or even the loss of life. The greatest damage, as in ancient Greek tragedies, is not in what others do to us, but in what we have done to ourselves. We prided ourselves on our civil liberties as a country, but now our words, our books, and our movements can be watched without any justification in the name of Terrorism. We talked of openness and tolerance in every part of our lives-but now, in the heart of New York City, prejudice rears its ugly head and people who should know better conflate a religion with an act. We are losing the best parts of ourselves out of fear.
Tomorrow, we are going to be asked to think. We are going to be asked never to forget.
I ask, today, that we do think. We do remember. But that what we remember is our better selves. Remember who we were before this. Remember who we can be. Remember not to give our ground. Remember to think. Remember to question. Remember never to let anyone sell our joys for fears.