America’s enemy No. 1, dead.
It’s difficult to connect the lifeless body of a man in Pakistan to that blustery day 10 years ago, when the slow hum of a fall morning was punctuated by a whoosh and a shatter of glass, but there you have it. A photo slideshow plastered across the home page of The New York Timeson Monday told the story more concisely than words could: Osama bin Laden in 1988; the Twin Towers burning in 2001; people at Ground Zero in Manhattan on Sunday night, celebrating.
But the death of a human being, however many deaths on his hands, inspired no joy for me. Just memories.
Every other morning of high school blurs together for me, but the third day of my freshman year stands out in my mind. I was early, and I took the two blocks between the subway and school slower than usual. For once, I took my eyes off of the ground and looked up at the two towers.
Later, people would speak at great length about how those towers anchored the Manhattan skyline and its identity. Whatever they represented to others — be it progress, trade, international relations, the American spirit — to my 13-year-old mind, they were just that tourist trap where my relatives and friends asked to go when they came to visit the city. My cousins will be so jealous when I tell them where I go to school, I remember thinking — only four blocks from the World Trade Centers.
The rest of that day is made up of brief snippets of memory. In first period art class we heard the first rumble overhead and a distant crash, and we barely paid attention. When the principal announced over the loudspeaker that a small plane had hit the Twin Towers and that we might have to stay inside at lunchtime, we continued our work. The 10th-floor classroom windows faced uptown, and it was a few minutes before we saw the emergency vehicles rushing down the West Side Highway. Then, tiny dots walking and running along the bike path, away from the World Trade Center. Then, a second rumble and a second crash.
In English class we turned on the television and watched flames lick both buildings. On the other side of the building, in the science lab classes, students pressed up against the windows and watched writhing bodies plunge to the ground.
We stared at the images on screen. My friend Adeeba whispered to me, “Do you think it was an accident?”
Deep down, we already knew it was no accident. But neither of us ever imagined that, in the months afterward, this single event would earn Adeeba verbal slurs and physical attacks for the headscarf she wore each day as she walked the streets of a usually tolerant city.
The first tower fell at 9:59 a.m. with an earthshaking rumble and our TV lost reception. The school was evacuated to serve as an emergency triage facility. “Walk away,” said the teachers directing 3,200 students out of four emergency exits on the north side of the building. “Just walk uptown, and don’t stop.”
The sun was out, the day was warm and windy, and we walked along the Hudson River, stopping at impromptu water stations set up along the bike path. Behind us, the cloud of black smoke spread and people ran by, barefoot, covered in ash and dust and debris. The city smelled of smoke for days afterward.
I didn’t lose a loved one that day, and I didn’t breathe asbestos-ridden air for months afterward — starting the following week, we split the days with a school in Brooklyn and tried to pretend everything was back to normal.
But I did lose all faith in humanity for a while. As fighter planes roared overhead, I wrote page after page in my journal about how cruel the world was, and about how someone had to pay for the attacks of that day.
Since then, the 2,996 deaths on September 11 have served as a justification for hundreds of thousands of civilian and military deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a prolonged hunt for Osama bin Laden after he and al-Qaida took credit for the attacks.
The attacks have also justified a broad-based departure from reality. They have allowed many to equate terrorism with Islam and skin color with ideology. Adeeba and the many other Muslim New Yorkers who lived through the horrifying events of that day saw those events held up as justification for abuse, rudeness and bold-faced racism.
I understand the desire to celebrate bin Laden’s death this week, but one more death doesn’t cancel out the first 3,000. Perpetuating violence won’t put an end to fear and suffering — as some 50,000 years of human history have taught us, violence only breeds more violence.
The story of September 11 shouldn’t begin and end with death. Instead, the events of that day should move us to action, wielding not guns or bombs, but communication, tolerance and understanding. That fight will continue long after all of us has died.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected]