I was a new immigrant to America, just barely two years old, trying to assimilate into the culture, still trying to comprehend the significance of my skin color and my place in society, but still fully conscious that I was indeed a ‘resident alien’ – that this was not just my passport status, but my identity and my psyche. I had not yet begun to identify with anything American – not the lifestyle, the culture, nor the value systems.
September 11, 2001 was to be my daughter’s first day in pre-school, and hence, my day of liberation, the start to well -deserved “me” time. Instead, it became a day of abject horror and despair for me and, I am certain, any sane, thinking individual, for whom the attack on a civilian population constituted a totally reprehensible and deranged act. It entrapped me in a world of pathos and anguish, one where I felt compelled to spend hours in front of the television, hypnotised, for weeks and months, listening one by one to the stories of all those who perished and those who escaped narrowly, but with huge scars on their souls. Though I did not know anyone who died personally, it did not matter – I still wept for them copiously. They were people, with families and futures, cut short so rudely. The pictures of the people jumping to their death from the highest floors of the towers to escape the inferno, haunted me for a very long time. The stories of heroism unfolded at the same time as the stories of moral and ideological depravity, as the investigation became public and the identity of the hijackers came to light.
There were things to be thankful for that day. My husband and his brother had a meeting at mid-day in the American Express building, that was also damaged by the attacks. The meeting was originally scheduled for the morning, but was pushed last minute to a later hour. A dear friend of mine, who is Sikh, and worked with Marsh Insurance in one of the towers, was saved by the skin of his teeth. He was delayed going into work because his son woke up late and my friend missed his regular bus, to tie his son’s turban for school. As his bus approached NYC, he saw the second plane going into the South Tower.
In the days after the attacks, we were catapulted into a world of fear, paranoia and hysteria, a world where the meaning of ‘normal’ changed. It was not acceptable to undertake any celebrations, as an act of solidarity with the bereaved families. Most lighthearted shows were cancelled from television.
Flying was considered an act of bravado and foolhardiness. Even shopping was frowned upon as frivolous and superfluous, till the economy began to show signs of a downturn and then, suddenly, shopping was extolled as the most patriotic act one could make! To partake in any discussion on American Imperialism or question American foreign policy was considered hugely unpatriotic and put one firmly in the corner of ‘public enemy’. A gloom settled in our hearts and pervaded every aspect of our lives. Yet, at no point of time, did anyone in my in-law’s vast extended family suffer any harassment or fear because of their faith.
The events of post-9/11 converted me, and I began to appreciate the positives of American values – those of freedom, liberty and justice for all. These are not just high sounding ideals, enshrined in the Constitution, but values practiced, by and large, by its citizens everyday in the way they conduct themselves in the public arena. I and members of my family are “randomly” picked up by the airport security computers every single time for a thorough check up, but I try not to grudge that – it is a small price to pay for the feeling of security and peace of mind.
There can never be any justification for an act of war against a civilian population – be it in NYC, Afghanistan, Darfur, Palestine, or Mumbai. But wherever there are horrors being waged, there are also opportunities for people to step in and absolve humanity from such baseness.
In retrospect, after ten years, I like to think of 9/11 not as the day when a needless, man-made catastrophe occured, but rather as the day when scores of heroes were born; when goodness and humanity exerted and expressed itself in the countless acts of charity and selflessness, as ordinary people put their lives at risk to save those of total strangers. The passengers who stormed the cabin of the United 93 and forced it to crash into a field in Pennsylvania, the firefighters and policemen who kept proceeding up the stairwells of the towers in the face of imminent danger, and the ordinary office-goers who put aside all thoughts of personal safety to save lives, only to lose their own. Such acts reaffirmed one’s faith in the human race and in the belief that one day justice would be served and things would assume normality. As they have.