[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.
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.
It took a minute for those students in Islamabad, the pampered scions of Pakistan's upper crust, to hear me. Really hear me. To understand that my vengeful feelings were just that, feelings, a visceral — and temporary — reaction to an extraordinary experience. At first they turned on me, battering me with questions and their own rage: I was American. And "American" equaled President George W. Bush, who'd taken to talking about obliterating the "evil doers" with a single-minded ferocity.
For them, terrorism meant something different than the 9/11 hijackers. Terrorism was something with which they were intimately familiar, from suicide bombings to the war going on in the country next door to them. As millennials, they'd watched their parents, and their country, become increasingly Western and globalized. Way too secular. Rejecting globalism and embracing a more exacting form of Islam was, for many of them, their rebellion.
Somehow, that day, we came to an understanding. They got to see that not all Americans were in lockstep with President Bush, that many of us disagreed with him. That we Americans are not a monolith. That we didn’t wish them ill. And I got to see why many of those 9/11 hijackers weren't poor and disadvantaged at all but from the upper class, much like the students I spoke with that day.
As a left-leaning liberal, I understood on an intellectual level how American policies fostered a festering resentment around the globe. Here, I got to see that anger up close and personal. It was a stark contrast to what I'd encountered in Afghanistan, where I'd been shocked to find Afghans who told me they were thrilled when the U.S. started bombing Kabul. (Anything, they said, was better than the Taliban.)
Except that, of course, none of that lasted. If anything, we became even more entrenched in our ways, diving into celebrity culture with even more gusto. Escaping, yes, but what? "Muslim" became an epithet, and the worse thing you could do to a presidential candidate was call him by his middle name: Hussein.
When I think of 9/11, I can smell the smoke, instantly recall what it was like to wash off layers of ash at the end of the day, realizing that I was washing away death. I think of that day whenever I travel. First, as I line up at security checkpoints, I think of the 9/11 hijackers. Then, as I take off my shoes, standing barefoot in front of the conveyer belt, I silently curse Richard Reid, the shoe bomber. And then, when I surrender my hair gel to a security guard, I think of London's "liquid bombers."
Little hassles, to be sure. But little hassles that serve as a constant reminder of that day, of all that we have lost. Of the dual wars that we continue to fight; of the tens of thousands of lives that have been extinguished.
We lost all that, and we lost something else, too: an opportunity to be expansive. To shed the fear, to look beyond our narrow borders and see others as we see ourselves. We've lost our civility. Instead, we've turned inward, tearing at one another with oft-times savage intensity, ripping up posters at town hall meetings and calling the president a liar in the middle of a joint address before Congress. After 9/11, there was a lot of talk about, "If we do this, then they will win." And now, looking at our bifurcated nation, I can't help wondering if they did.
Teresa Wiltz is The Root's senior culture writer.