Friday, September 9, 2011

Remembering September 11, 2001

I was trying to figure out what to write here on the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on September 11, and I started looking through the collection of emails I have from immediately after the attacks. I found an email that I wrote to a number of my friends, and I find that it still expresses my feelings. I reproduce it here.
September 16, 2001

Dear friends and family,

These are some of my thoughts on the events of the last week....

Since the terror attacks in New York and Washington, I've been listening to the radio late at night (since I haven't really wanted to go to sleep). NPR has continually broadcast news since the attacks, and on each night, starting around 10:00 p.m., they've been opening up the phones for callers from around the country. Each night they've asked people a different question. On the first night it was: "how has everything changed since the attacks." On the third night it was, "what are you doing to survive – how are you coping with the attacks." I must say that I have a real hunger to hear the news, to know what's going on, and to hear what a variety of people are saying around the country. I'm very glad they haven't gone back to the regular schedule yet.

I woke up on Tuesday morning when I received a phone call from a friend inviting me to dinner the second night of Rosh Hashanah. I turned on the radio, and heard that a plane had struck the World Trade Center in New York. I immediately jumped up and went downstairs to turn the television on. I then saw the replay of the second plane striking the second tower – the unbelievable scene that I'm sure you've all seen, of the plane going through the tower. I couldn't believe what I was seeing – and then a few minutes later, to hear that the Pentagon had been struck by yet another plane. I was in shock.

In the afternoon I had to go into the office to start getting ready for my evening class. I wasn't sure what to do. Had classes been cancelled? I arrived on campus, and found students wandering around, watching television, talking on the telephone, trying to reach family and friends, and talking to each other about their worries and fears. Classes weren't cancelled, but professors had the choice of whether to meet. On Tuesday night the class met very briefly – it was clear that students were not able to focus. One student was missing – apparently she was very worried about someone from her family. Another student just kept talking nervously. A third student stared into space.

On Tuesday night, the local Jewish community met at Temple Beth El downtown for a memorial service. This included the usual evening prayers as well as the Jewish prayer for the dead – "El Malei Rahamim" ("God who is full of mercy"). The Conservative and Reform rabbis both officiated – it was very moving.

The next day (Wednesday) three of my classes met, and we spent most of each class session discussing the attack the previous day. It was clear that my students were confused, and often didn't know the first thing about who Osama bin Laden was, or even where Afghanistan was. In my Jewish history class we abandoned our discussion of the wars of the Maccabees (second century B.C.E.) for a quick overview of Osama bin Laden, the Taliban, and Islamic fundamentalism. I think that on Monday I will hand out some further information on these topics (including a map of central Asia) and then, I hope, proceed to talk about our planned class subjects.

On Friday at Ithaca College there was a service organized by the president of the college, Peggy Williams, and the chaplains: two Catholic, a Protestant, and a Jewish chaplain. Students also participated, as musicians (we have a great music school). We sang some songs, including Amazing Grace and a really beautiful round in Latin called "Ubi Caritas." The Jewish chaplain led us in the Kaddish. There is no Muslim chaplain, because there aren't very many Muslim students, but the regular imam (prayer leader) for the Jumaa (Friday) prayers was asked to speak. I'm glad he participated. The president of the college spoke. Many people came, about 2,000 (we have a total student body of around 5500). I heard that a similar gathering at Cornell drew 15,000 (out of a total population of 30,000).

Then, tonight (Saturday) I went to a candlelit vigil organized by the local Tibetan Buddhist monastery (only in Ithaca!) – the monks chanted in Tibetan, the rest of us held candles, we walked around the Commons downtown, and then dispersed. Interestingly enough, at both the Ithaca College service and the Buddhist prayer vigil there were American flags flying.

At the end of the Ithaca College service, after the official part was over, a group of student starting singing the Star Spangled Banner – which I had been hoping we would sing, because it just seemed appropriate – our nation has been attacked. I started crying – the first time I've really been able to cry all week.

I feel like I'm getting a grip on what love of country really is — it's not about beating our chests and saying "we're America, we're No. 1, we can beat you up!" – it's about all the people who volunteered to look for survivors in New York, all the rescue workers who died when the World Trade Center towers collapsed, and all the people around the country who are organizing their own local prayer vigils and candlelit vigils and spontaneous singing sessions (like the amateur chorale singers who got together in New York on Thursday night at Lincoln Center and just started singing patriotic songs, and the crowd started getting larger and larger), all the people who are trying to donate blood, all the folks who are giving lots of money without thinking twice to help those who were injured in the attacks, those who lost family in the attack – etc. etc. I've never seen anything like this in my country, and I'm proud of it. I now have a better understanding of why people in Israel don't leave the country when they're in danger – it's their country and they love it for all of the specific ways in which Israelis do good things. And I love this country for all the specific ways that the vast variety of Americans manage to do good. I think that militaristic patriotism feeds off this more basic, open, pluralistic patriotism – but that we don't have to let it. The flag belongs to all of us, not just xenophobes, racists, and warmongers. I think we have to remember that.

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