I was, of all things, reading an article on ESPN’s website over the weekend. In the article, the writer interviewed several college basketball players from all walks of life. These players were all kids– in some form or another– when the 9/11 attacks happened. They were, at the core, exactly like me: scared, confused, and very young. We didn’t and couldn’t understand what was happening around us.
We’ve been dubbed the “9/11 Generation,” a group of people whose childhoods were forever changed by the actions of a select group of extremists, on one fateful morning.
A Whole World Away
I had just started high school. That, by itself, was a scary enough prospect. Compared to middle school, it was just a bigger fish tank with bigger fish to potentially make life a living hell. But by no means was I a mere “kid.” I was a high-schooler. A bona fide teenager. Kids were the ones still sitting in specially-made tiny chairs with tiny desks in elementary school. I had education and a whole fourteen years’ worth of wisdom to back me up. And, on top of all that, it had been a year since my father passed away. I certainly was not your run-of-the-mill teenager with idle daydreams and no sense of reality.
My world had already been shattered. Nothing the world could show me could possibly be any worse.
New York City was a mythical place that I knew only through movies. It was out of reach, untouchable, and awe-inspiring. The entire expanse of the continental US plus three time zones lay between me and the East Coast. When my radio alarm clock went off that morning around 6:45am PDT, the attacks had already happened. My ear was met with talk. It was the voice of the traffic lady but she wasn’t reporting the traffic. All I heard was “something something… smoke… Pentagon… New York.”
Mom was already in the living room, watching the news, when I finished dressing and washing up. I thought it was another incident like Columbine– armed gunmen holding up a public place– or Oklahoma City. It was much worse. The images I saw on the television were horrifying but I had to keep going. Lunch had to be packed, breakfast had to be made and eaten, or I was going to be late and hungry. All of the things I’d heard on the radio suddenly made sense. By the time I left the house to catch the bus, the first tower had fallen.
And for the first time in over a year, I felt utterly and completely helpless, powerless.
Fear, Anger, Hatred, Suffering
Pride in anything remotely traditional– like one’s school or country– was “uncool” as a teenager. But it was definitely “cool” to hate. It didn’t matter if I or any of my peers understood the situation. The raid leader had marked something with a skull and that meant we were supposed to kill it or support killing it.
Hatred was a way of masking our fear. Hating anyone with the complexion of someone from the Middle East was a way of showing patriotism without doing anything cheesy like waving the American flag. If someone has wronged you, you don’t merely get even. You get mad and the more hatred you harbored, the more powerful you could become. In time, you could even gain the power stop such an incident from ever happening again.
And in a world so utterly and completely shaken up, despite being enlightened, what does a child have to grasp? We were reduced to judging people by their clothes and culture and ethnic backgrounds and skin color all over again. There’s no handy color-coded threat gauge that pops up when you mentally mouse over a person. They don’t show up as hostile red, neutral yellow, or friendly green. So, we made our own internal gauge in a childish attempt to make sense of this world we were suddenly thrust into. On top of all that, I found myself expanding my “caution” to other areas. All forms of religious affiliation were frowned upon because, after all, those terrorists wouldn’t be frenzied zealots if not for their religion, right?
Years earlier when Phantom Menace premiered in the theatres, Yoda said to the child Anakin Skywalker, “Much fear I sense in you, young Skywalker. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hatred. And hatred leads to suffering.”
In a few short hours that day, I remember the fear and anger phases passing very quickly. And for the longest time, the dial seemed to be set permanently to “hate.” We’d figured out who caused us to fear and we were angry as hell at them. By God, hate and vengeance will fuel our mission until the bastards pay for their crimes. But at the end of the day, countless people are still suffering from grief and loss and sickness and fear and, yes, hatred.
There hasn’t been much accomplished in our hate and anger except to cause suffering. I was accustomed to burying my fears to appear strong and resilient, the same way I buried my grief to become a bastion of support for my mother. I ran on hatred spiked with bloodlust so that I didn’t have to confront my fear.
Courage and Forgiveness
I would learn much later that courage was not the absence of fear, but rather the willpower to remain proactive in the presence of fear. Like so many of those in the ESPN article, I eventually grew out of the fear borne out of the 9/11 attacks. For years afterward, I would look up at the sky every time I heard an airplane and tense up with anxiety. Of course, I lived about 20min south of Sacramento International Airport and hardly a mile from Freeport Executive. Planes were going to fly relatively low around the city to come in for landings, but I didn’t understand it then.
Letting go of my fear was my way of combating terrorism. Living in fear allowed our offenders to gain victory over us. And we cannot allow that to happen.
Going to Mass yesterday, the homily would inevitably be about the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and where the journey has taken the country since then. The priest preached forgiveness. At the basic level, he reminded us that we humans screw up many times and, yet, are forgiven every time with grace. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” is what the line in the prayer says after all. We’re not supposed to forgive others so that we can be forgiven, but that we forgive because we have been forgiven. It’s a system of paying it forward.
What struck me the most, however, was when Father Jack said, “Forgiveness is not pacifism. Forgiveness is not a pardon. Forgiveness is not condoning wrongful actions done against you or others.” It takes a lot of courage to forgive, especially so when the crime is perpetrated on such a massive scale.
Remember the Lessons of the Past
And, of course, the homily invoked echoes of the Jedi Code (once again): “There is no emotion; there is peace. […] There is no passion; there is serenity.” Emotions are a natural part of being human. There’s no way we can turn them off or close our minds off to them. But the fine line that separates humans from animals is our ability to recognize and analyze our emotions instead of just acting upon them.
Succumbing to hatred and anger is a dark, soul-consuming path. It’s probably the one of the worst things that could ever happen to a human being. It is self-destructive. Ultimately, in the end, you end up becoming that which you fought against, the very thing that made you hate in the first place– a mockery of what you once were.
Ten years later, I am now a mother who goes to church and no longer thirsts for real blood nor vengeance. When my daughter learns about 9/11, it will be from a history book. Perhaps, one day, she’ll ask me to tell her my “Where were you when…?” story. And I’ll tell her, but only as an example of how revenge is never a good motive for anything, no matter how good of an idea it might sound like. While I hope she never has the chance to feel such fear, I can teach her how to deal with it in a proactive and effective manner. And, above all, I will teach her to understand all facets of a situation so she doesn’t make hasty– and usually wrong– judgments.
I am a child of the 9/11 generation. My adulthood is tempered and forged from this single day.
Maybe I was too young to understand, but I honestly thought the country was united in our hatred and need for vengeance when we went to war. Looking back, I see that the anger and hate I harbored only hurt myself more than it ever hurt any terrorist halfway across the world. The idea that there is “no emotion” isn’t a call for stoicism or an utter lack of feelings. It’s dealing with one’s emotions so well that they do not disrupt one’s peace and mental fortitude.
This is what the country’s united stance against terrorism should be about: a message that says we will not be shaken nor deterred despite the odds.