Reflections on 9-11

I taught English at the World Trade Institute Language Center on the 55th floor of the World Trade Center for five years in the 1990s. An overlooked incident in 1993 probably saved many lives on 9-11. The first bomb attack happened on my day off, thank God! I was home with my baby, whom I had wheeled in to the office to meet colleagues just days before the bomb blast. A truck full of explosives went off in the lower parking area of One World Trade Center, killing six people. My co-workers and students reported that the first floor rippled as waves of explosives blasted out and up from the basement. Our secretary, who was a Port Authority employee, lost her best friend.

Fellow language teachers told me about the chaos that ensued. They had no idea what was going on. Several listened to the radio or TV in their offices, where reporters were telling them to break windows to let the smoke out. There was no fire alarm, no sprinklers, no plan for evacuation. It took my colleagues four hours to get down the stairs. The Spanish language teacher told me that everyone was calm, that they let a pregnant woman pass in front of them. Nobody panicked. When he finally got to the bottom, he noticed that all the evacuees had little black mustaches from breathing in smoke and fumes. Ironically, he offered people cigarettes to comfort them as they emerged into the bright sun.

By 9-11, the World Trade Center parking garage was too secure for another car bomb. However, there were some positive changes: an evacuation plan was in place, and each floor had a fire chief. It may not have worked perfectly, but when the unimaginable horror of a plane crashing into the Twin Towers occurred eight years later, communication was greatly improved, and tens of thousands of occupants were able to evacuate successfully.

We had just moved back to the U.S. from five years overseas when 9-11 took place. I was one week into my new teaching job, and we were in a new neighborhood. We had just met the elderly ladies on either side of the house – who had given me their phone numbers “just in case.” My boys were in two different elementary schools and were scheduled to walk home from their separate bus stops after school. Normally, I would have arrived home just minutes after they did, but on 9-11 I needed to stay late at school with students waiting for the bus. My new neighbors came to the rescue, each one happy to greet a child and walk home from school with him. After 9-11 I arranged for the boys to attend the YMCA after-school program. After 9-11 I got a cell phone. After 9-11 I had my children carry an Ident-a-Kid safety card in their backpacks and I made sure they had the neighbors’ phone numbers.

After 9-11 I flew an American flag on my porch and felt a surge of pride and patriotism. We were living in a house in suburban Washington DC that was on the flight path to Andrews Air Force Base. I couldn’t sleep for many nights, as I heard huge transport planes fly overhead at 3:00 am, wondering if they were going to drop bombs on me. Irrational fear soon gave way to a feeling of resilience. I was part of a competitive women’s rowing team at the time. We resumed early-morning practices on the Potomac River after about a week. One morning, a police boat appeared at 6:00 am on the pre-dawn Georgetown waterfront asking to see our coach’s permit to operate a motorboat. Suddenly I didn’t feel so reassured. That same week, a police officer stopped me on K Street by pointing what I thought was a gun directly at my oncoming vehicle. It freaked me out. It was one of those speed detectors, but I thought he might shoot me. I was shaking as I pulled away with a ticket for “speeding” in a 25-mph zone. Other security measures took over and somehow I felt less confident in my political leaders than I had before. I took down the American flag.

So much of our mindset has changed since 9-11, especially in terms of airport security and travel. One unpleasant side effect is that we may be less trusting of strangers than ever before – I certainly think that 9-11 turned public opinion against Muslims. I was sharing an office space with a young mixed-race Muslim teacher at the time. She told me that fellow educators were coming up to her and saying, “I know you have nothing to do with this…” or they were saying, “I’m sorry.” She was puzzled by their reactions. She told me that the police came to her house because neighbors reported “a lot of parties” where they thought they saw Mohammed Atta, one of the terrorists. In the immediate aftermath of 9-11, I asked her if she felt more Muslim or more American. She answered that she felt more Muslim. I understood why when she told me how her colleagues and neighbors treated her differently.

This summer when I traveled to Germany, I saw more women in hijab than I’ve ever seen in my seven years of living in three different Muslim countries in Africa. I saw women covered from head to toe in black veils – some even had their hands covered – walking next to husbands wearing shorts and polo shirts. It was shocking to me, coming from the DC area, where I see people from all over the world – often sitting in my classroom. I tried to understand why they were so covered up. I spoke with a woman from Munich who expressed what seemed to be a racist attitude. But she explained that her government granted refugees 800 Euros a month and a place to live; they had an obligation to try to fit in with her culture a little more. She said that families were given prime real estate with an enviable view of the lake, but turned it down because 200 years ago, pork had been prepared on the premises. I could understand her point.

Has 9-11 created an anti-Islam world? I don’t know, but I certainly hope not. There are educated people out there trying to improve understanding between cultures and religions. I follow the writings of Asra Nomani and the Muslim Reform Movement. I know that I work hard to stay informed about what is happening around the world in this scary election year. I hope that Americans will vote based on hope rather than fear. There is room for divergent opinions in a post 9-11 America. Let’s move toward a brighter future where we can accept one another’s differences and invite discussion about the commonalities we share. Can’t we all just get along?