There is something almost magical about New York as summer turns to fall. The changing of the seasons brings a spirit of renewal. People hurry to school and work, propelled by dreams and ambitions. The leaves shift from green to orange. But this beauty is transient. In the evening, when I go on my walks, I look at the two blue lights beaming into the heavens from just south of the old World Trade Center and I try to hold my gaze there. I never last long.
When the Sept. 11 attacks happened, I was an 11-year-old Muslim boy suddenly confused about the world and unsure of my place in it.
I heard the news while as I was on the basketball court at recess at my school. A white classmate rushed up to me. He said terrorists had hijacked airplanes and used them to bring down the twin towers. He said America was under attack, that the border was sealed. He said there were more planes in the sky.
Despite my general ignorance — I did not know what the words “hijacking” or “terrorist” meant — I still realized that this major attack had something to do with my people.
When I got home from school, I had questions for my parents: Why had this happened? Why were people looking at us differently? And did this mean that we were also bad people because we prayed to the same God as the attackers? Questions that no parent could adequately answer.
Close to three thousand people were killed that day. For those who lived through it as children, the carnage was inexplicable. The images from the attacks ran in a loop on our television screen, each new repetition hitting harder than the last. Language had always separated me from my parents, but in this horrific instance, their wordless terror was enough to tell me all I needed to know.
My life from that point forward was shaped by this great crime; I tried to distance myself from people who brought destruction to America’s cities, and came up against the twisted perceptions Americans had of brown people. Sept. 11 marked the loss of innocence, the abrupt recognition that I was different, would always be viewed as different, and that the stakes of this difference could be life and death.
At school, we had to write reflections on what we felt. What could a sixth grader say about Sept. 11? I wrote that I was angry that it happened — something generic and bland. I was called into the principal’s office to talk about my reflection. I thought maybe the teachers had discovered that my brother and I went to the mosque every day. But apparently the emotions I‘d expressed in my essay made my teachers concerned. This feeling of standing naked before power — the terror of being found out, even though I’d done nothing wrong — would stay with me.
In college, I quickly learned that this skin and Muslim name of mine required me to tread carefully. Any time the subjects of religion, terrorism, the war in Afghanistan, and yes, Israel, came up, my peers’ questions felt like private interrogations. I had to learn how to navigate this, and how to survive a world darkened by Sept. 11. Every time I am detained at an airport now — it still happens — I silently curse the jihadists who brought down those towers, for the lives they took and for what they unleashed.
Any moment that shakes history is experienced first by the living, in deeply personal terms. The phone calls to relatives and breathless prayers; the panic, the chaos, the desperate hope that the worst is over. In the seconds and hours after impact — themselves entire lifetimes of anguish — there is only uncertainty and horror, in that order. Later, the pain will give way to anger, and public decisions will be made that will set the course of history.
I am part of that final sliver of my generation who will have any living memory of Sept. 11. The people who experienced the attacks as children are now in their mid-20s to early 30s. For those younger than that, what I am describing is an abstract historical fact, like Pearl Harbor or the Vietnam War.
Around my neighborhood in New York there are many such children who have started the new school year. I see them walking to school in the morning, hand-in-hand with their parents, chattering happily. They will not know what I know: that the world in which they are growing up is indelibly marked by this singular tragedy.
I sometimes wonder: What would I tell them if I could? They will only ever know the paranoid and terrorized world that the Sept. 11 attacks gave us. Only know getting onto an airplane as a hellish experience. The hyper-militarized borders and selective detentions and enhanced interrogations, all to be taken as ordinary. The constant surveillance of the national security state. The endless secret wars, waged in the cover of night, in distant places where the victims are invisible.
Because these children will hold blue passports, they may never fully understand the extent to which Sept. 11 further shackled the vast swaths of the world not so fortunate, people born to the wrong countries, who will be sent to the back of the line for as long as they live.
I might tell them a few things my parents were not able to tell me.
At first, there were unlawful detentions and deportations of undocumented people. Soon, a Republican president was deceiving the country and the world into war in Iraq that would lead directly to the chaos and racial hatreds we see today.
Grand proclamations about an “axis of evil”prefaced wars that killed hundreds of thousands of Arabs and brown people, human beings tabulated as mere casualties, the sanctity of their lives incinerated just like the twin towers. The government tortured people and held them in secret prisons.
And then, the double tragedy: young American soldiers — the Sept. 11 generation of heroes — were sent to their early deaths because the attacks on America were hijacked for political ends by people in Washington.
Violence was done not just to bodies, but to language as well, and the word “terrorism” became a catchall phrase used to indict individuals on accusations alone. You had to choose a side: Were you with us, or with the terrorists? The outright manipulation of the people — assisted at times by a credulous media — all coarsened the country, turning a once proud and optimistic nation into a cynical and polarized place. A spiritual pallor descended over America.
If the United States were to have deliberately tried to make the worst possible foreign policy choices in the wake of Sept. 11, the results would have been only a little more disastrous than what actually happened. America invaded one country that had nothing to do with the attacks, and was drawn into a conflict with a tribal-extremist group of another country that could go on in perpetuity.
We were told that America would make no distinction between terrorists and the nations that harbored them. But 15 of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, and there is credible evidence that at least parts of the Saudi government — business partners of both the Bush and Trump families — were aware of the coming attacks. Nothing but more business deals were done.
There was a hidden cost to all this enormous energy expended on war and bombings. Not just the refugees or the cages or the guarantee of tomorrow’s terrorists. Not just the racism and xenophobia internalized by brown-skinned children who became adults in the shadows of this mass tragedy. All the policy focus on war meant there was too little time spent on the cataclysmic challenges of the 21st century: climate change and wealth inequality, both of which will plague our generation long after the warmongers have disappeared.
This is not to exculpate the terrorists or their ideology. For them, I reserve a special fury, just as their actions induce in me a special shame. When I think of Islamists monopolizing and weaponizing a great religion, I am filled with rage — rage at the audacity to shout Allah’s name while sending innocent people to their deaths; rage at the perversion of so many minds by their religious leaders; rage at the reality of living in a brown body that is stereotyped, misperceived and disfigured beyond my recognition — and there is nothing I can do to save it. This is the world Sept. 11 gave us.
Anniversaries safeguard our memories, forcing us to reckon with a past quickly receding into history. Anniversaries also require us to tell stories — especially uncomfortable stories — so that the young ones know something of the world that made them. Years will go by. New memories will replace old ones. The wounds may fade, but their scars will deepen over time.
Those blue lights continue to shimmer in the darkness. New York shimmers. And 18 years later, I am still in mourning, and perhaps always will be, for the worlds that went up in smoke on that September day.