The Endless Aftermath of 9/11

Nine years after the Sept. 11 attacks, we are left to ponder: Who won the war on terror?

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[Editor's note, Sept. 11, 2010: Though this essay first appeared on The Root one year ago, we believe it's still as relevant today as it was then.]

Sept. 11, 2001, was, of course, one of those Technicolor days, with beyond-perfect temperatures, azure skies -- the better to see the column of smoke towering from lower Manhattan. That day, I narrowly missed, by minutes, witnessing the first plane's entrance into the World Trade Center North Tower -- I'd just hopped a cab at Chelsea Piers, a scant mile away. Had I lingered after my yoga class, as my classmates had, I would have seen everything. My husband's cousin missed getting killed by minutes. Had she lingered in her office at the World Trade Center complex long enough to grab her purse, she would have lost … everything.

As Americans, we all lost something that day: jobs, friends, loved ones, a way of life. Invincibility.

But we gained something else: mortality.

Sept. 11 introduced terror into all our lives -- into American lives -- in a way that other countries had known for many a year. It changed the Zeitgeist, brutally leveling the playing field and turning Americans, for just a moment, from the ones who wage war to the ones upon whom war is waged.

Five months later, I was visiting a media-studies class at a university in Islamabad, Pakistan, when a student put me on the spot: "What's your personal definition of terrorism?" My answer was not a popular one. But it was honest: "Sept. 11. Because I was personally terrified." At my answer, the student sputtered in indignation: "How can you say that? That wasn't terrorism. You Americans are the terrorists!"

This is what I tried to explain to those Pakistani students: How on 9/11, Manhattan instantly morphed into a sci-fi disaster movie, filled with smoke-clogged streets, suspended subways and men in business suits staggering about, arms around each other, sobbing. How women who worked near the towers described to me the sight of the second plane flying right past their office window -- that close. How they ran, screaming for cover. How colleagues from my newspaper stumbled in from reporting at Ground Zero, covered in ash.

Shaken.

In the aftermath of 9/11, I spent a month in Afghanistan, covering life in Kabul shortly after the fall of the Taliban. It was an unsettling time: I landed in Pakistan the day Danny Pearl's kidnappers had declared a fatwa against all American journalists. Afghanistan was no safer. But I met many people in my travels, people who surprised me, people who moved me, even a few who enraged me. One of the people I'd met was an American-educated Pakistani professor. He was progressive, hip, convinced that Pakistan was heading for better times. I can't help wondering what he thinks now. At the time, he invited me to speak to his co-ed class in Islamabad. And so I did. Sure, why not?

By the time we started waving flags and beating up men in turbans and bombing Kabul -- and, later, Baghdad -- those vengeful feelings had long subsided. And I started to worry what our country would turn into, thanks to 9/11.

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