On September 11, 2001, I was in my junior high school English class.
It was a normal day until we all noticed that from the window of our downtown Manhattan school, we could see a lot of smoke not so far off in the distance — we thought that maybe there was a big fire in one of the nearby hospitals. Next thing I know, all the students were being rallied in the courtyard to wait for our parents. The remaining students, whose parents hadn’t made it, were planning our escape. Finally, of course, they let us leave by ourselves. I specifically remember walking the 10 blocks to my house, alone, seeing people running, crying, and frantically attempting to use their phones and thinking how unreal everything was — my young mind could only understand this as a movie, not real life. I wasn’t scared though, probably because I never actually processed the entirety of this tragedy. While most of my memories from this day are blurry, the one thing I remember very clearly were the large, black, clouds of smoke that we all saw from the window. The smoke would also come to symbolize how I feel about 9/11 presently— dazing, exaggerated, and intimidating.
Americans, and New Yorkers, too, at first, became hysterical after the attacks on 9/11 — a natural reaction to a traumatic event. But then came the daze from what I call the 9/11 movement. The day became the motivation for flaring anger, ignorance, and rejection of anything seemingly Arab — as well as blind mass support for anything termed pro-American. The movement was powerful, especially because it built upon and reinforced previous stereotypes and prejudices that had already existed in the United States.
The media took full advantage of Americans’ emotions and sensationalized their coverage of any story even minimally related to 9/11. Former President George W. Bush used the day as the reason for continuous international violence. Rudy Guliani, New York City’s mayor at the time, became the voice of New York and said all the wrong things. While claiming to have New Yorkers’ best interests in mind, his rhetoric set out to manipulate the public into believing that there was an inherent difference between us and the “Islamic terrorists” (which unfortunately trickled down to mean anyone Arab looking) — the battle between good and evil. Nothing is ever that simple. American flags were raised all around, in support of this new, false nationalism inspired by xenophobia. The amount of ignorant comments that pervaded the internet during this time was unbelievable.
The hysteria that plagued New York and the country has passed for the most part, but unfortunately this false sense of what it means to be American remains. It is gratifying though, that people eventually saw beyond the smoke and began to think more critically about 9/11, their responses and that of the government and media as well. This is especially true for New Yorkers who, because of the diversity of our city were forced to see stereotypes for what they really were. I remember many meaningful conversations in high school on this very issue.
Sept. 11 was a tragedy and my heart sincerely goes out to those that lost loved ones on that day. Many New Yorkers are still traumatized, and many are still experiencing a myriad of health issues relating to 9/11. I am unsure if this day really had as much of an impact on young New Yorkers as it did on Americans who mainly experienced the event through the media. If anything, I believe the continued war in the Middle East has been more influential on our generation.
I can’t speak for all New Yorkers but I believe and hope that the majority of New Yorkers who were able to emerge from the smoke can see 9/11 for what it actually is — a series of interrelated incidents of violence between nations, that are, for the most part, driven by government agendas that are primarily self-serving, and extremist factions that believe they are representative of that nation. My experience of September 11 was minimal, thankfully; there were many people who were more directly affected and who feel very strongly about the events that occurred on this day. However, I believe that in order to move forward we must separate our emotions from our capacity to understand and think critically.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons