I started the day sitting in Mrs. Morrissey’s classroom. It was 5th grade and we were in Social Studies class. I think we were discussing something pre-revolutionary, like the Lenni Lenape, when all of a sudden, Mr. Matzner the math teacher came into our room and told Mrs. Morrissey to turn on the TV. She clicked the remote and the screen filled with the image of the Twin Towers enveloped in dark smoke. She got very ashen-faced, but left the TV on. We watched the second plane hit and reports come in about the attack on the Pentagon and the crash in Shanksville. We saw images of people on the ground covered in ash, some bloody, some running, some crying. Briefly we saw a camera shot following one of the jumpers, a tiny dark speck silhouetted against the brilliant blue sky, until Mrs. Morrissey switched the channel. We all knew something terrible had happened, but I doubt any of us understood, in our 5th grade minds, what this meant or who did it.
There was an announcement over the PA system explaining in little kid terms what had happened and my mom came to take me and my brother home early. She was crying when we got in the car. I thought about my aunt who worked about 6 blocks from Ground Zero. I thought about what could drive someone to be so angry to do something like this. For a while I had dreams that a white-robed man was standing on the landing just outside my door, ready to hurt me, too.
The next day Mrs. Morrissey had us write something about what we felt about the previous day’s events. We expressed our confusion and our sadness, many people saying they had watched their parents cry or worry about loved ones who had been near one of the sites. In retrospect, it was probably an effort at helping us kids through trauma, to gauge how we were doing, but it stuck with me especially because of things we talked about besides our anger, sadness, and confusion. One my classmates expressed his bafflement that anybody could hate America so badly. “We’re the best in the world. What did we do?”
That week, I talked with one of my friends back in Holland, who said some kids at her school had cheered when they heard what had happened. I didn’t understand this and therefore shared the information with some other girls in my class. Kaelyn, Melissa, and Katie got very distraught, saying I was telling lies because that could not be possible. The four of us were sent to the guidance office, where the counselor calmly asked me why I had said something horrible like that. I was shocked that I was being singled out for trying to clear up my confusion. I didn’t see how the fault could lie with me for just asking a question. Why would kids half-way around the world be happy about something like this?
Ten years later I realize that what I said was somewhat heartless. Those three girls were already very upset at the disaster of that day itself and I had added an existential horror to the mix: this new information was threatening something they had been told over and over and over, that America is the best, America can do no wrong, Americans should be proud. It must have been a shock to them that anyone could possibly believe otherwise. I was frustrated that it seemed like ignoring the rest of the world was considered ok, especially having moved to the States only a year prior from a country some of my classmates didn’t know existed. As time passed, I often wondered if maybe some of the things we were doing as a nation were not beneficial, but each time somebody would look at me blankly and say something along the lines of, “It’s ok. We’re defending our freedom.”
Such vague terms did not help me with any of the questions I still had. I didn’t understand how it was alright to “defend our freedom” at the expense of other people, no matter where they lived. I didn’t understand how what happened in 2001 was an excuse for horrible acts of our own like torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, the rape and killing of civilians, or spying on our own citizens. I still don’t understand how Americans could suddenly rise up against a faith to which 1 in 5 people on Earth belongs, most of whom are peaceful and do not wish America or Americans harm. How could we feel good about ourselves when some of us were singling out Middle-Eastern-looking people at airports, threatening to and actually burning Qur’ans, screaming foul when an Islamic community center a few blocks from Ground Zero planned to include a prayer space? What are we really accomplishing here? I get the same feeling when I walk past the man screaming about abortion on 5th and Bigelow, when I hear anything about the Westboro Baptist Church, when I hear Ann Coulter speak, when I get quizzical looks from people when I pull out my Arabic flashcards.
We fear most that which we do not understand. I don’t pretend to understand everything about anything, but I am not afraid of looking for answers. Especially concerning the questions I have left about 9/11, I am not content to let the headlines or (especially) blind faith create my opinions on the Middle East. Don’t get me wrong, I am proud to be an American. Still, I believe with greater clarity now than ever that part of our American duty, part of honoring those who lost their lives and the heroes who prevented others from losing theirs on that day, is to exercise the freedoms we have by cracking a book, opening a newspaper, and doing research to ensure that we can take full ownership of what we believe. Instead of shouting angrily to anyone who might listen, I prefer to have a conversation with others to find my answers. If that takes learning a common language like Arabic, I am happy to do so.