On September 11th I was in Washington, DC, where I lived until moving to New Orleans in 2009. When the first plan struck the World Trade Center, I was in a meeting on 16th Street, less than a mile north of the White House. I rushed off to my own office, where we huddled around a tiny TV with bad reception and saw the second strike, and then began to get news of the disasters in Pennsylvania and Washington, DC. The first hour or so after that is a blur ... calls to loved ones saying we were OK, figuring out where everyone would go to feel safe, trying to parse the true news from the rumors that began to spread right away... There were stories about car bombs throughout the city, and at least one reporter said the Department of State had been attacked.
My partner Albert and I made our way to our apartment, in Dupont Circle, with his Palestinian-American colleague. Already there was talk of "Muslim terrorists" on CNN, and along with that came fear that people who were Muslim (or appeared to be) would become targets in the panic. We stayed there, glued to the TV for a few hours, until a sense of calm set in and she decided to drive home across the Potomac.
By late afternoon, Washington had the strangest sense of calm. All morning and through lunchtime commuters had clogged the streets, frantic to get back home. Once everyone was out and many streets had been closed, Albert and I ventured out. We rode our bikes past the White House, down to the Capitol Building, and along the National Mall, then across the river and to the Pentagon. It almost seemed that a neutron bomb had exploded, removing the people but leaving the environment intact. No planes flew overhead. Birds chirped, and squirrels scampered about collecting acorns in the cool, dry, sunny late-afternoon. We rode on the closed freeways until we got about 100 feet away from the Pentagon, and saw the the big, nasty, sooty, smoking gash that kept smouldering for so long afterwards.
On the one hand, there was the brutality of the attacks, the horrific loss of life, and the surreal spectacle of the day. There was also fear that people who "looked like" they were Muslim or foreign would become skapegoats. That point was especially salient for me, since I was working at the time with refugees and immigrants, including many Muslims and their community leaders. On the other hand, beauty made its appearance in those first few days: The racial tension that I usually felt on the street between blacks and whites seemed to have been put aside. When black and white people smiled at one another on the street, and held doors open for one another, we were using those gestures to say "We are together in this and we care for one another." Our President and many others were saying that we needed to figure out how we could have arrived at this point, and to find ways to create a healthier world. For a while, I let myself dream that as people, as a society, and as a global community we could use this tragedy as a wake up call. September 11th seemed like a dividing line between one epoch from another. I dreamed that the world after September 11th would be marked by the quest for a more real, lasting, and deeper peace than we had known on September 10th. And I prayed that God would use me to help build that peace, although I didn't have a clear idea of what that might mean for my life.
All of that optimism turned out to be naive, of course. Fear, greed for power, delusional thinking, and ignorance led our President and the people who supported him to squander the incredible opportunities for unity and reconciliation that September 11th presented. Instead, they decided that "an eye for an eye" should be the order of the day, and they made sure the world saw America as the biggest bully. It makes me sick to think of the lives that have been lost since then, and the ways our reactions to the attacks have made the world sicker, more divided, and farther away from anything we might be able to call "peace."
For me personally, September 11th still serves as a spiritual touchstone. Thinking about that day helps me to remember that I asked God to use me as an instrument of peace in ways I would probably not understand.
And more clearly as the years go by, I hear God's answer to my prayer.
Integrity USA welcomes your reflections on September 11th, 2001. Send them to Louise Brooks, Director of Communications: firstname.lastname@example.org