September 11, 2011

wtc-12-feb2010It’s 9/11. Nobody needs to say more. Everybody knows what that means.

So what is one to do? There’s so much going to be said about it being 10 years later and, specifically how Muslims and Pakistani-Americans are faring and what they are thinking, etc. But even in that regard, it might be instructive to go back to some of the material in the emails I sent out during that day 10 years ago. So, here’s a taste: The day started with a call from my brother at 7:11am Pacific Standard Time, telling me to turn my television on.

The morning and a major part of the day were spent tracking down friends and family in the New York Metropolitan Area. Halfway through my morning, an Indian friend of mine who was on a project in NYC got in touch with me over Yahoo Messenger and requested me to call his dad in Delhi and reassure him.

Everyone I knew in that area — and the Washington DC area — turned up okay. Physically, at least. As far as I know, no one I knew was flying that day. The last report came late in the evening — it was already night on the east coast — that concerned a cousin who my niece reminded me worked in New York City.

At least a couple of times that morning when the CNN anchor said the doctors at St. Vinnie’s were asking for old clothes and shoes, I almost got up to collect some from the closet and take the elevator to the basement so I could get over to the other side of the building. The realisation that we no longer lived on 13th Street in Manhattan was instantaneous, but the feeling was real while it lasted.

In the late afternoon, I found myself explaining over the phone to my eight year old niece that people do this kind of thing because they get really, really angry and when they get angry, they get violent, and that while violence is never a good thing, that’s just how some people are.

A few things were going through my head.

The first was that the “last time something like this happened, there were internment camps.” It is not at all a nice thing to contemplate, but there was a strong realisation that what happened after that other unspeakable tragedy — in Oklahoma City, the very year I moved to the US — had tempered the reaction to events. I guess I didn’t get the looks someone mentioned they were getting at work because I was the one in my office that shared the anxiety of the colleague that was trying to reach his sister, who was walking back to Queens from Manhattan.

Along the way came “Special Registration” and long check-in times at the airport. Still a “non-immigrant worker,” I had to get up at an ungodly hour and turn up with a colleague at the kind of downtown government office one usually doesn’t have to deal with as an IT worker in the US. We exchanged spouses’ phone numbers in the waiting area — just in case. Ironically, when it was my turn to be “specially registered,” I found that the poor civil servant upon whom it had fallen to crosscheck my information (passport, visa, credit cards, etc) and enter it in a new database had difficulty just accessing it and offered to get me some coffee while he tried to reconnect with DC. It took quite a bit of self-control to hold back from at least making a crack about having a cousin that could help fix his computer. And then there was the time when we realised that the long check-in times we’d been experiencing were because my four-year old New York-born son was on “a list” and a couple of SFPD uniformed policemen had to be summoned to the SFO airline counter. When they turned up, I just pointed out who they needed to interview; I wasn’t even flying that day. To the credit of the San Francisco Police Department, the officer took one look at the half-awake, flu-ridden young man whose passport he had been handed and said, “I guess we won’t run the whole protocol.”

But 10 years on, one paragraph stays relevant. And that was that both as a former resident of New York City (we’d moved just over a year before 9/11) and a Muslim, I would like to thank everybody for their wishes, support and understanding, both then and since. And I would also like to say that I understand the anger and the outrage. It really is time the silent majority of the Muslim population of the world did some introspection and stopped letting people that think girls getting an education (a religious obligation) is less important than a dress code (a recommendation). It is time to control not just how the religion is viewed but also, and more importantly, how it is practiced in the 21st century.

So on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, as we all look back at the past decade, what has changed?

One press person wrote to ask if there were lingering effects on the community. Well, maybe the increased activism in the community might have come anyway — but I have no doubt that it was accelerated. And as more than one recent article has pointed out, there has been an increased interest in Islam itself, both within those who already were Muslims, and by quite a few outside the faith. And a whole new generation of activists have turned to working with Muslim communities. Again, both Muslims and others. The then young Muslim woman who was an aide to Senator Russ Feingold, today heads up a legal advocacy group started by the National Association of Muslim Lawyers. Would that have happened if 9/11 hadn’t? Maybe. But maybe not as soon. And look at it another way: the phrase “racial profiling” was in the news in places like New Jersey where it was a big problem for the African-American community. But I am sure very few of the Muslim activists engaged with the issue today ever had the phrase cross their lips before September 11, 2001.

So the word I would use isn’t “lingering.” It is “profound.” The changes since 9/11 have profoundly shaped the world we live in today. But as the continued relevance of words written 10 years ago shows, the elements that shaped them, and continue to shape them, have been with us all along.