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Never Forgetting Means Nothing Unless We Change

(Non-sports post. Enter at your own peril.)


Seven years ago, hijackers intentionally flew planes into the World Trade Center towers. At the time, I was three weeks into my freshman year of college at New York University, in downtown Manhattan.

I don't presume to know the pain of those who lost someone in the attacks, but as one who was in the general vicinity, I tell people I was spared, because I was inside a classroom building when the planes struck, because I was away from a television and our dorm window when the first tower fell, and in a stairwell on my way to the ground level when the second tower collapsed. Not so for my roommate, who awoke that morning, wandered to our window to take in the sunshine, glanced south, and saw the first plane smash into the building. Not so for my best friend, who was in a movie theater a couple years ago and had a panic attack when the trailer for World Trade Center began without warning.

I have one vivid memory of the day: Early in the morning, someone told us a plane had hit one of the twin towers, but I assumed that meant someone got drunk and crashed his Cessna. However, when I emerged from class and began walking across Washington Square Park, I saw a crowd gathering and gazing down De La Guarda Place. Both buildings were ablaze. The sheer shock of it prevented me from comprehending. I asked a man if the plane had hit both buildings (still only accepting the possibility of a Cessna). He didn't look at me, and all he said was, "Two planes. Two planes."

I say I was spared because I was deeply shaken by two other events that should be etched into the national consciousness on the same level, but aren't because even though they mean just as much, they either weren't as dramatic or didn't result in as much carnage: the Oklahoma City bombing, and the Columbine massacre.

The bomb that went off on April 19, 1995, in Oklahoma City was not captured on live television. The men who carried it out were good ole boys from the U.S.A. President Clinton did not use the occasion to hack away at civil liberties.

But this disaster was my real loss of innocence. After knowing that men had filled a truck with explosive material, parked it in front of the building, set it off, and killed 168 people, I could never again walk down the street without being painfully aware of my vulnerability. What's in that truck? What's under that woman's jacket? Who is most likely to have a bomb?

Four years later, on April 20, 1999, I became aware of a different sort of vulnerability. When I heard that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had gone on a rampage through their high school, shooting and killing thirteen people before turning their guns on themselves, I knew some of the details before anyone told me. They were outsiders. The "in-crowd" constantly harassed them, viciously made fun of them. They had targeted the people that represented all of that to them. None of the victims deserved to die, and I cried before I went to school that day. But unlike the fear I felt after Oklahoma City, I felt anger this time. I kept repeating, "Why'd they do that?" not in reference to the shooters, but to the assholes who had made those boys' lives hell.

Again, nobody deserved to be shot, injured, killed. But I was angry and I am still angry when I read accounts of the community "pulling together" and re-asserting that nothing can break them apart. Why? Perhaps it's because it's missing reflection, that it's almost always reinforcement of the social order that led to those boys' pain in the first place. Those boys did something horrible, for lack of a better word. However, they did not decide to do it on a whim. It was not a baseless decision to gather firearms and shoot their classmates.

The same thing can be said for 9/11. George, why did 9/11 happen?

George W. Bush: "Because the terrorists hate us."

Me: "Why do they hate us?"

George W. Bush: "They hate freedom. We stand for freedom, and so they tried to destroy it. But we have resolve, and we will not let them dictate to us what we do."

Me: "They do not hate freedom. That Muslim extremists abhor certain elements of mainstream American culture does not constitute a hate of freedom. They do indeed hate our country. However, they hate us for what we have done to them, not so much what we stand for.

"Like a white separatist in Oklahoma who wanted to teach the federal government a lesson, like boys in Colorado who have been viciously bullied and harassed until they can take it no more, those men resorted to violent measures in response to years of perceived insult and occupation.

"Will you please acknowledge that, perhaps, U.S. policy in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere had something to do with the 9/11 attacks? It is not an acceptance of blame--no one deserves to be attacked that way--but please, PLEASE, accept that this country must go through a collective reflection on what we want out of life, how we treat other people and countries, and what we can do to understand extremists far and wide so that we don't piss off so many people in the future."

I was spared, in relation to so many of my friends, and the sadness still hasn't faded.


(Some bits and pieces were cobbled together from past reflections posted, privately, elsewhere. Comments are closed, and basketball talk resumes tomorrow.)