9/11 Reflexion by Vennila Kain
"Be the change you want to see in the world."
It is more than three days now since the world as we knew ended. But did we really know it? Did we know that there are people in this world who have been pushed so far beyond the threshold of personal pain, that they have lost their ability to feel pain - theirs or others.
I for one can not feel much anymore. It hurts too much in the region of the heart, so I live in the head. I have resorted to intellectualizing the events? looking for logic where there is none. Looking for hope, where there is hate. Looking for ways to peace, not war. Looking for understanding, where there is presumption. Looking is better than shutting my eyes. The president today at the national cathedral said: "we shall answer to our history". Looking will tell us to answer to our future, not our history.
Peter Jennings disappears for a few seconds before coming back to inform just now that there was a blackout. I have power, but I am kicking myself for not stocking up on candles.
Watching TV depresses me. Being out in the city, and among the people gives me hope. I see our best on the streets, even while people argue on the square, at least we are talking. I see sheer bravado on TV. Again and again I hear the president talk about anger, whereas we need hope.
And it is getting worse. So many reports of attack on anyone looking remotely middle-eastern or south-Asian. A Pakistani elder was beaten by three baseball wielding youths in Queens, three Puerto Ricans harassed elsewhere in the city. And it is only the beginning of this ugliness. I am quite terrified really. We have banned TV now in our home. I think its essential at least for us, not to hear anymore talk of war or intent to kill or wiping out countries, or worse still Arab and south Asian -Americans in their eagerness to out-contest America in its outrage, proclaiming allegiance and outright revenge.
Revenge! Retribution! Retaliation! What good would any of it really do? Would these people really blow themselves up, if they thought there was any other way out of their collective misery? What can you threaten people with, who think they have nothing to loose? I wanted to write about witnessing history. About how I was there, standing in the corner of 14th and University Place, tearing my hair out, in helplessness and horror, that was escalating by the minute. To an impossible crescendo, as the first building, Tower 2, the south tower, the second to be hit, collapsed in slow motion. Screaming into a shawl in my hand, as my legs shook, and my body raked with sobs, not knowing if my brand new husband whom I was to meet at the very corner had gone towards The World Trade Center.
I would never have been out of the house at that time of day usually, except for that particular day, to take an early 6 o'clock yoga class from a visiting yogi from India. The class was at Chelsea Piers on the west side highway, and the plane must have just passed over our heads minutes before we emerged from our class. I boarded a bus to bring me back to the east side, and as the bus crossed a major avenue, ( I can't remember whether it was the ninth or eighth or even seventh) the driver slammed on the brake in the middle of the intersection, in sheer shock looking south, what the hell, I remember him saying. I was at the head of the bus myself, and ran upto to his side to see what.
The two buildings graceful and slender in their duality were visible looking down most avenues. There is no escaping their looming presence, and that day the north tower (I never knew what their names were really, to me, it was simply the one to the right) had a huge gaping hole towards the top. At that time, there was no smoke, and I could clearly see the jagged outline of the hole, like a limestone cavern or a shark mouth, open wide open, as our jaws dropped open.
The bus-driver said that he saw a plane fly overheard, low and it must have crashed into the tower. I, just then realizing, that I was clutching on to his arm, let go, asking, a small private plane? People had rushed to the front and all sorts speculation as to how this accident might have happened. A small plane? A big plane? A private plane? I remember thinking, the hole is really too big for a small plane. Even the driver was eager to agree that it was a small plane, for I think, despite what he actually saw of the plane, it must have been beyond his understanding that a commercial pilot could be so inept.
Oh thank god, its too early for people to be there yet, I remember saying. Lady next to be disagreed. They all would be in their desks by now, with a steaming cuppa coffee, she said. We were asked to move on from our prime-view location, middle of the avenue aboard a bus, and not to block the intersection. There was nothing to block really. Everything was at a standstill. Every auto and human had simply stopped as if subject to a freeze gun. We nevertheless, cruised, craning at every intersection for this unbelievable sight. From which we simply couldn't tear our eyes away. I got off the bus, saying goodbye to the driver as if we were old friends.
My husband Jacob was to meet me ten to nine, at the south steps of the union square. I half-knew he would really not be there, but I checked anyway, cursory and quick, and came back to the north-east corner of the intersection: 14th & University Place. I scanned the crowds to see him, from time to time, while watching smoke emerge, and flames lick the tower, red and black. Sirens were screaming, all around, people were gasping as they saw what happened for the first time. The construction work in front of the intersection resumed. This big yellow thing was digging the earth, and I could still see through the inverted V of its arm, an American flag waving in the foreground of the twin towers, except one had become a smokestack.
The thought of people scurrying down the steps of the building from its impossible height, even as we stood in a corner safe, made me sick. I think that's when I started pulling at my hair, at its roots in frustration. I think I needed that mild energizing pain to believe that this was all true and happening. All this, and the real horror hadn't yet arrived. Someone said Bomb. Someone said Terrorists. And we all said, come on, don't jump to conclusions! It was an airplane! Not terrorists.
I told them what our driver had seen as proof. Someone said they could see things falling. A photographer who had set up his telephoto nearby, grimly said, People. And Jumping. I couldn't bear it. Where is Jacob? I wanted to be held.
I craned my neck to look back at the steps, may be he came back there? and I saw the explosion out of the corner of my eye. People all around pointing simultaneously. A huge ball of fire. And I thought that the fire in the north tower must have some across something extremely flammable. The innocence of all these explanations & rationalizations amazes me, now in retrospect.
As the smoke cleared a bit, I even remember gesticulating and saying look the second building has now caught on fire, from the explosion on the first. My new friends in the corner chose not to correct me just then. A guy with a radio walked into our corner with a mobile radio transistor. And that's when I heard TWO PLANES. People all around me from all walks of life. Construction workers in awe, a woman speaking breathless German into her cellphone, a very distinguished looking formally dressed man with a black briefcase, a baseball hat wearing man in shorts who had summoned his friend to turn the TV on, and now we heard what they were showing on TV as well. The tan man with a gold cross, chillingly said, now is the time to purify the land.
We then heard there was a third plane still in the air. And fear gripped our hearts. We turned to look back at the Empire state building, behind us, gleaming into a blue sky. We looked at the sky all around us. I was thinking this is how it must be like in war for people living in fear of attacks from the air in fear of helicopter gunships. I was thinking Palestine. There is really no such fear as being caught in naked land and death can come from its vantage point above ground, with nowhere to hide.
The guy in the baseball hat said the white-house is being hit. Or was hit. He said Islamic terrorists. Another man challenged him not to be irresponsible. They started arguing, for a second it seemed it might come to fisticuffs. A woman tried to pacify, pointing to the twin towers, pleading don't fight now! They quietened, somewhat chastened. Someone said, the buildings may collapse. We all looked at this new piece of intelligence with utter disbelief. No way, they are made of steel. They are the tallest buildings on Manhattan. They can't collapse. Where is Jacob? He will know! I crossed over to the south-east corner, hoping to get a better look down the street, where I thought Jacob might be. Still he was nowhere to be seen. All sorts of information & misinformation started pouring in. People said the pentagon has been hit. War! People said eight hijacked commercial planes in all. Airborne missiles with human cargo. Someone came running saying buildings in canal street are on fire.
A young woman, more a girl really, said she was on the 8th floor of the WTC. When the plane hit. She ran. Her pocketbook and everything was still back in the office. Someone gave her 20 dollars to get home. She took the subway upto 14th street. The reality of an actual person from this epicenter of impossible shock, shook me. I was moved to give her a spontaneous embrace. I am so sorry, but you are safe, I said. And she just crumbled in my arms. This human contact must have gotten past her shell-shocked state. I let go of her. She wiped her eyes and disappeared into the crowd. And that's when the building, tower 2 started crumbling. It was as if the solid walls were spontaneously turning to slate-gray dust. No! We were all screaming. I know I was. Almost wailing. No! God, stop this magic trick, this incredible disappearing act, this vanishing in smoke, right now! RIGHT NOW. STOP. WAIL. PLEAAAAAAAAAAAASE!
I screamed. I cried. It was as if I was in an evangelical congregation, where everyone was possessed. I was possessed. It was as if I myself went crumbling. And the realization that Jacob might have gotten anywhere near there tore through me. And I crumbled even more. I don't know how long I stood in that corner, legs shaking crying, utterly helpless and terrified. And I realized someone was hugging me. One solid arm around my shoulder was slowly rocking me. You ok? You Ok? Sounded distant. I sniffled and shook my head. Was it yes or no? Was I ok or was I not? I didn't know. He asked if I had someone in there. I said my husband. Gasping for air. I was supposed to meet him here. He may have gone to the site. But I must not have been very clear. He reassured me. Don't worry. I was there, and I was able to get away. I walked all this way. I wailed some more. If he was able to walk from the WTC to 14th street, Jacob could've easily gotten to the WTC from 14th street. He didn't understand when I started sobbing into my shawl again. Suddenly people started running out of the intersection. I remained standing where I was. He also ran. Half-way. Before turning back to wrangle yet another nod for his you ok? And a promise that I won't go downtown looking for my husband. And then he left.
I realized my legs were shaking. My teeth were chattering. I was hugging myself. And people were looking at me. Probably with a lot of sympathy. I walked to the corner and sat down by the wall. Two Indian men all concerned were trying to get my attention and find out what happened. But I didn't want to talk to anyone anymore. I felt so lost. After a while, I got up and decided to go to our friend Natasha who lived only a couple of blocks away. The doorman let me through right in. I couldn't say Natasha 6KK without sobbing. I was dimly aware of all sorts people looking at me in all sorts of ways. My hair a total mess, from my constant tearing at it, and my face tear streaked. Their own fears were clearly palpable, even as they tried to look away. When I came out of the elevator, there stood Jacob. We fell into each others arms and cried like babies.
And this is what I wanted to write about and share -- this monumental rollercoaster of feelings. Events that followed this involved more talking with strangers and sharing stories. Like the man at the cafÈ Dante who had come down from the 50th floor of the north tower. And the other one at the same cafÈ, sitting behind me eyes red from dust and tears running for life from the WTC Marriott, not knowing which way to go, having arrived from Texas. The large man at the phone line completely covered with dust head to toe, like he had jumped into a pool of cement. Like the woman who got out of her mid-town bound train from Brooklyn, having told to leave the station, emerges into this unbelievable lunar landscape of dust and destruction not knowing where she was. I can only imagine her shock and bewilderment. Did the train having left sunny Brooklyn with the sights of Manhattan clear, polished and inviting shoot through some worm-hole to emerge in the underbelly of hell?
In the light of everything we know, and the loss of countless people, my own personal experience seems to be trivial and a bit trite. May be even indulging. But the experience will forever be etched in my mind, and pivotal in how I shall live my life.
Last night my friend Priya who is south Asian living in Boston called me in tears. One of the friends she was spending her evening with ended up preaching hatred and revenge, eventually throwing her out for being Indian, a foreigner. Guilty by remote resemblance. And for seeking moderation amongst sheer hatred. I think it is harder for most of us from elsewhere, and particularly those who are hoping for a reasonable course of action instead of a reactionary course.
It is easier to hate, and hate blindly than to persist through the storm and come out seeking understanding. It is easy to say They hate America. They hate our guts. They hate freedom and liberty. They hate our way of life. All words coming from the President of the United States at some point or another. But it takes courage to look beyond the veil of anger and the haze of hatred, past all the simplifications and over-simplifications, to see that it is the not the american way of life, not its malls, and megamalls, not its wealth nor freedom, but at how the American policies towards them, have affected them and ultimately galvanized them to turn individuals into arsenals of war.
The tragedy that struck the world trade center is more than an American tragedy. It is truly a global tragedy. There were hundreds of south Asians, Middle-easterners, Mexicans, Russians, Brits, Canadians, even Afghans in that building. People who died were American and of other nationalities, of many ethnicities. All innocent. People affected by it are citizens and the people of the world.
The Taliban at one point begging America not to wage war with Afghanistan said, there is not a single factory in all of Afghanistan that is worth the cost of a single missile fired. May be it comes from the very mouth of evil begging forgiveness, but there is no denying the truth of it.
And the political consequences of stockpiling American war machinery into Pakistan are enormous. It will not be merely about America seeking revenge in Afghanistan. Let us not forget that conflicts that have existed in that region are age-old and will continue to exist through, and even escalate owing to the presence of Americans. The region is a tinder box, and lets not be hasty in striking up a match.
I am a Indian married to an American. A permanent resident, but nevertheless a foreigner. Qne half of my family is American and the other Indian where people are still trying to figure out what American support of Pakistan in its persistent war with India over Kashmir, would mean to them. General Musharraf today brought Kashmir onto the bargaining table. No action will exist in isolation. The repercussions, the consequences, the intended and the unintended, could be beyond the deepest desire of even the most vengeful and bloodthirsty. It was just a year ago, a full scale war was fought between the two countries in Kashmir and over Kashmir, and the world was predicting the potential of the war going global or nuclear or both.
I started writing this as an email reply to our friends from around the world to reassure them that we are fine. But it turns out it is not enough for me to say that I am fine. I need to tell them that I am fine, but I am also like this. It occurs to me that we are here in America, lucky enough to be in a situation where our voices can be heard. We owe it to our brothers and sisters around the world and in Afghanistan who do not have a voice to steer the course of their country's action and define their own destiny. But we do!
If there is anything I have learnt from witnessing the towers comedown, it is the power of being a part of our shared humanity. And it is the power of the individual and the individual connections. I will never forget the woman I embraced, nor the man who held me through my tears. If you hugged me you can not kill me. There is a line in the play. Not In My Name, that as a part of the Living Theatre I have performed on Broadway, on the streets protesting the death penalty, that goes like this: If I promise not to kill you, will you promise me the same?. This may be simplistic. This may be basic. Even childish. But maybe its time we went back to the basics, and saw through the eyes of the child again. Through the eyes of my dear friend Sierra, all of nine, approaching 10:
Wouldn't it be nice if:
"First, everyone around the world has to get together and say....I am Sorry. Four syllables, I think they can handle that!
And there is another version of this, as Dante said dauntingly: "The hottest place in hell is reserved for those in times of grave injustice, chose to remain silent". But this is not about choosing sides. It is about clarifying for ourselves what that injustice may be. Not just about what had happened, but also about the injustice that could continue to happen.
Let us break our silences and chose our words with care and compassion, for those living and dead, but not in revenge and retribution. The potential for good to come out of this devastation is enormous. Just Imagine!