Sunday, September 11, 2011

A 9/11 Story from an American Who Wasn't Here on 9/11

So, pretty much every blog I follow is posting something this weekend about the attacks on September 11, 2001. Honestly, I wasn't planning on following suit, but I figured that, since everyone seems to be doing it, I'd post something to that effect too - though I think my story will be a little different.

You see, I wasn't in the US on 9/11/2001 - in fact, I didn't return to the US until August 2002, so I experienced 9/11 and its aftermath in an uncomfortable limbo mental state somewhere between "American" and "foreigner." I wrote down my experience of the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath on the US and on me for one of my entry essays into grad school. Here's the relevant excerpt from my essay, which describes my experiences on and after 9/11/2001:

            My career goals and professional aspirations revolve around the personal, academic, and professional experiences that I have had abroad, which have transformed me from a somewhat detached, apolitical American-centered moderate into a passionate, progressive, committed internationalist. I plan to work internationally with either international government organizations or international development non-profits on solving ethnic conflicts and distribution problems.
            My transformation started in Würzburg, Germany, where I lived for a year as an exchange student. I left the USA for Germany in August 2001 and returned in August 2002 - and what a fateful twelve months that turned out to be. After the attacks on September 11, 2001, I experienced the astounding outpouring of compassion and solidarity of Europe and most of the rest of the world. On September 12, Le Monde wrote that “We are all Americans,” and I felt that to be true everywhere I went.
            As an American living abroad, I was starved for news about what was happening back home, and I devoured as much English and German news media as possible. I began to feel uneasy soon after September 11, largely because of the reports I read about increasing xenophobia, attitudes of cultural superiority, aggressiveness, and anti-Islamic sentiments in the USA. World sentiment started to catch up with mine when the occupation of Afghanistan began to drag on, and increasing numbers of reports started to detail human rights abuses against prisoners and civilians in Afghanistan. I felt the tide of world opinion changing, and Europeans’ attitudes and actions towards me reflected this tide. We were definitely not all Americans anymore.
            For me personally, even greater shock and disappointment awaited me upon my return to the USA in August 2002. My generation had been the small, lucky one to spend its adolescence in the short, sunny, infinitely optimistic period between the breaking of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, and the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. As children, we had been too young to care that we could have been annihilated by nuclear war at any time. I remember learning how to hide under my desk in the event of a nuclear attack, but the drills and the threat had no meaning, no reality. For children from my small town in Tennessee, life was good. Terrible problems existed all over the world, especially in Africa and the Balkans, but as a teenager, the importance of such matters seemed to pale in comparison to the trials of everyday life. When I went to start my undergraduate studies, my class was utterly convinced of its ability to solve the world’s problems and promote peace, prosperity, and democracy. The USA, the sole remaining superpower, was at the vanguard of a new world era (in spite of the small economic setback of the dot-com bubble), and we were eager to train as the new leaders of this new world.
            I knew that the US had changed since I had left, but I had no idea that the USA in which I had grown up had vanished from the face of the earth, to be replaced by this strange foreign country filled with suspicion, fear, animosity, and self-righteousness. Instead of trying to counteract these destructive trends, the government seemed to be actively encouraging the American people to be afraid of each other, foreigners, and unnamed, faceless “terrorists.” I lived in this environment for a year while I was finishing my undergraduate degree, but after I received my undergraduate diploma, I hungered for more travel, adventure, and international perspective.

Back to present-day me speaking: So, I left the US again, this time for several years - you can see a couple of pictures from my several years abroad in my very first blog post.

Rereading my essays, I am not where I thought I'd be, either physically or professionally - I had pictured myself working somewhere outside the US at an international government organization or international non-profit organization, but (thanks in no small part to the partial collapse of the world economy), Ali and I stayed in the US after I finished grad school and I took a job with the US government instead of an international government organization. I suspect we may yet move abroad sometime, though perhaps not for a few more years - we'll see what happens.

Anyway, those are my thoughts about 9/11 - it's still a strange event for me to contemplate. I didn't experience it nearly as viscerally and intimately as many of my friends and family who were actually in the US on 9/11 (and in the months and years that followed), but I also don't have the detachment and perspective of many of my foreign friends. I guess that befuddlement was the cause of my confusion surrounding the death of Osama Bin Laden, also recorded on this blog - though what I found most confusing about that episode was all the celebrating by college-age kids upon Bin Laden's death. From my Facebook status on the following day:
Looking at the pictures from the celebrations in DC last night, I'm struck by the fact that most of the people (kids?) in the pictures had to be between 8 and 11 years old on Sept. 11, 2001. My most formative years happened before that date; I wonder what it was/is like to grow up in a post-9/11 world.
I guess I still do wonder what it was/is like to grow up in a post-9/11 world, since I continue to try to live in a pre-9/11 world. Perhaps naïvely, I hope that someday, America as a whole will be able to join me and return to what life was like before 9/11.

P.S. After writing the first draft of this post, I came across this account of another person's experience of 9/11, which shares some of my sentiments. So, I guess I'm not the only one who's still sometimes wonders what the hell is going on. Also, Krugman finds the commemorations today oddly subdued.

P.P.S. One of WaPo's columnists laments the US's post-9/11 ongoing hysteria and lack of self-awareness, and Wired has a story on how 9/11 completely changed surveillance in the US (or, more bluntly, how the Bush and now Obama administrations undermined US civil liberties).

P.P.P.S. I think a lot about tradeoffs, both in my job and on this blog, so I think it's important to consider what we could have bought with all the money spent on the "War" on Terror. ThinkProgress has put up a list - for example, providing 63.3 million college scholarships every year for 10 years (and yes, I know that's far more college students than we actually have in the country - that's the point).

No comments: