09/11, 20 years later

It’s hard to comprehend time sometimes. It goes by so constantly and perpetually that we hardly ever notice change, until it’s too late. Whether it be the length of our hair, or the growth of our children, or even the way our society looks and feels. We simply don’t notice the moments of change until the transformation has already happened.

I suppose it’s thus important to take a moment out of our busy lives to remember certain dates that are defining in our histories as human beings. Of course, we would be taking this moment every single day if we took the entirety of humanity and its history, but let us limit it more simply to our own existences. I recently watched a Netflix series consisting of a six-episode series focusing on the events of September 11, 2001: Turning Point: 9/11 And The War On Terror. A bit hesitantly, I clicked on it not knowing what it would evoke in me, and not being sure if I’d learn anything about it that I didn’t live already, but watching it made me take a moment to reflect.

What are the defining moments in history in our lives?

Being born in the 1980s leaves me a bit limited in the history of the world, but I’m drawn to at least three defining moments that I lived and witnessed first hand:

  • The dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.)
  • The fall of the Berlin wall and reunification of Germany
  • The second referendum on Quebec sovereignty
  • The rise of widespread terrorism, ultimately symbolised by the 09/11 attacks
  • The creation and widespread adoption of Pokémon games and culture
  • The emergence of social media and interconnectedness of the internet

While some of these might not be consequential to many, they stick out in my mind as being largely transformative. I remember waking up in the mornings, ready to see the results of something, or my eyes being opened by disbelief as something unfolds before me.

While many of these moments can be considered political, largely related to identity of groups or interconnectedness of history, or pop-culture references, there is only one that truly changed the way the world works; that is the events of September 11, 2001 in New York City, Washington D.C., and in the fields of Pennsylvania.

I remember the day, I remember the weather, and I remember where I was sitting the moment history was being announced to me. I was ironically sitting in a history class, summarising and outlining the causes of Nazism that were going to appear on an upcoming text. The classroom was fairly silent, with a few conversations happening around, but mostly pens on paper and the scribbling of study notes or graphical organisers. It was this moment that the teacher announced in the most calm and somber voice, that we would all head down to the auditorium because we were going to witness history in the making.

We didn’t know what to think; we had no context in order to make sense of this. How could something be so consequential that would take us away from our studies? We were ushered across the school campus to the auditorium where obviously other classes were gathered. For the purposes of context, it was the early 2000s, wide speed DSL wasn’t available (especially where in the world I was), and so information wasn’t shared on the go like it is today.

Photo courtesy of BBC

There was a television placed on the stage to the left side, and it was being projected onto the big screen an image I couldn’t quite understand. A building was on fire, and the voices of my classmates were muffled. We didn’t have mobile phones to check what was going on, we just sat and watched the smoke billow from the World Trade Center North Tower. The news reporter was just repeating the same thing over and over, and there was so much confusion as to what was going on. Was there an explosion? How did the building get on fire? Why was this history in the making? I was asking myself these questions.

And then it was a few moments after I sat down, the voice of the newscaster stopped. There was a long pause, and we saw nearly live what appeared to be a plane fly into and explode into the South Tower. The images were striking, and while there was only speculation beforehand what was going on, the gravity of the situation hit me. How does an airplane smash into a skyscraper in New York City? How can this happen? I’d been on hundreds of planes before and I never felt like pilots were out of control, but then again I suppose I was ignorant of what was going on in the cockpit and the pilot. I remember gasping and saying “Oh my God” because it was something so unexpected and yet so real.

The cameras were pointed right at the burning tower. It was only natural that we witnessed something we never expected. In retrospect it was hours before we saw video being sent in from the first plane, from every different angle, but since the first disaster happened, everything was being reported. We sat there, in disbelief thinking how could this happen, why could this happen, who would drive a plane into a building? And then I heard the word for the first time: terrorist.

I didn’t quite have a solid concept of it, I mean it’s not the first time the concept was used. There has been terrorism in the world before, but I suppose it was how it was being used that really was new for me. Seeing it was different about reading it, certainly. And we just sat there, teachers in the front looking shocked, but not saying anything. There was a sense of panic in the air, a confusion barely vocalised but obvious in the tension that we felt in the room. We sat there for an hour, and during that time more people came to the auditorium and more teachers gathered us into this room.

It became apparent to us that our next class was going to happen, and I think it was maths but we just sat there and nobody told us to do anything. No bells rang, no other sounds we heard except the voice of the the news reporter on the screen and the images being broadcasted. More information came in, more eye-witness reports, more devastation, and eventually it was clear that there wasn’t two crashed planes but actually four, another hitting the Pentagon in Washington D.C., and the other crashing into a field. We had been sitting there uncomfortably for about an hour when we saw the South Tower collapse. It was like witnessing a train-wreck; you see it, and want to look away, but you can’t. Your eyes are glued to it and the image was engrained in your mind forever.

Eventually we were ushered back to our classes, but I think most of us were so confused, we didn’t even remember what we did for the rest of the day. Even though I was nowhere close to this, I remember being nervous going home on the bus. Sure no plane was going to drive into the bus, but it was clear that hijackers took control of the planes, and couldn’t they do that anywhere?

And so in the coming months the words became apart of our general vernacular: terrorist, hijacker, suicide bomber. I’ll never forget where it started, but twenty years later I can still see and feel the shift of the world. The paranoia, the fear, the impending unknown or uncertainty became somewhat permanent. To be completely honest, thinking about those feelings, it’s the Covid-19 feelings applied retroactively. All of that uncertainty and fear, it was happening again.

And so we wonder. This happened exactly 20 years ago, but what has changed or what has happened? The Netflix docuseries has clearly outlined the failure of the “War on Terrorism” that was waged, and it’s highlighted by the departure of Americans and Allies from Afghanistan departure a few weeks ago and the Taliban taking over the vacuum. When I was hearing it in the news I thought, what progress was made, what purpose was there, how are we back to where we were 20 years ago?

Under that 20 years, Afghans made huge strides to return to modernisation of pre-Soviet invasion and Taliban rule. Women became active parts of society and had access to education, more children went to school, there was relative safety and security that was maintained with the help of the world. They rebuilt and retrained and sought after a better life, and saw hope. It wasn’t perfect and people suffered under the civil war, but it was progress. I had the pleasure of teaching some Afghan men and women, and I listened to their stories and why they moved here, and from what they escaped, and the hope that they felt and pride they felt for their countries traditions, culture, and language. And then in what feels like hours, the world saw all of those freedoms and progress disappeared, as the Talibans took over Kabul and essentially all of Afghanistan overnight.

My heart breaks to think about this, and while I don’t want to spread out sadness into the world, I think it’s important to reflect on those moments that change the face of our world. Changes to national security, to safety and fear, to air-travel and freedoms. The way we see each other, and wonder what we are capable of? Do I know a terrorist, whether foreign or domestic? It’s about the way we see and talk about different cultures and religions, and how we need to build bridges to come together instead of build walls to tear us apart.

That change came twenty years ago, and the hate upon which those events were based still burns in the hearts of millions of people lurking in the shadows. Lest we forget the ones lost, and take stock of how our world is today. Care more, love more, and show empathy to more people in need. Don’t just turn your back. If I’ve learned anything in my life, is that we are more connected now than we have ever been, so do what you can and stand up for what’s right. Someone else will be grateful for it, I promise.

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