Magazine article The New Crisis

Reflections on September 11: Freedom Dreams Undeferred

Magazine article The New Crisis

Reflections on September 11: Freedom Dreams Undeferred

Article excerpt

Issues & Views

The morning of Sept. 11, I was sitting at my desk hastily putting the finishing touches on the manuscript for a book called Freedom Dreams. A few minutes before 9 a.m., I heard the first explosion, immediately followed by what sounded like cheering but turned out to be mad mad screams of shock and confusion. My wife, Diedra, and I initially thought it might be some kind of "demolition party ," given all the construction work going on around New York University, so we didn't investigate. I never took my eyes off the computer screen. The second explosion brought us to the window.

We had a direct view of the World Trade Center from our bedroom. Our building sits about 15 blocks north of where the twin towers stood, so the flames felt way too close. All those television cliches about being in a war zone or feeling like we were living through a movie struck me as strangely appropriate. From our terrace, we could see the ball of fire caused by the second jet smashing into the South Tower. We saw the building come crumbling down in real time - a scene of such overwhelming horror that I will never need to see a replay. After witnessing the collapse of the South Tower, we decided to make a mad dash through the streets to pick up our daughter, Elleza, whose school was a mile west of us.

As we turned on Thompson Street toward Washington Square Park, we heard a thunderous tremor and turned back to see what had happened. The North Tower had collapsed. There was nothing left...nothing but billowing plumes of smoke and desperate human cries rising from crowds of scared and confused onlookers. We broke into a sprint. Every block felt like a mile, every person became an obstacle. We made it to the school, found our daughter, took her out of math class and stood there in a daze, trying to figure out what to do next. Desperately, we pressed the redial button on our cell phones trying to reach other parents who might be stranded somewhere.

The situation was surreal.

The next day, the city was eerily quiet. Despite clouds of thick smoke, I felt compelled to work on my terrace so as not to be distracted by the television. My reality felt less mediated - I could see and hear the helicopters, take in the scent of burning rubber, miscellaneous metals and, yes, human flesh. The sun shined brightly, the sky was blue like the Caribbean and the streets were nearly empty except emergency vehicles. I wrote in my journal:

Elleza, who turned 11 three days ago, is afraid and so am I, but I can't show her my fear. I assure her everything will be okay, that we will recover and that her future is secure. Then she asks me who might have done this and why such a thing could happen. At first I avoid the question because it could have been any number of groups, but once it became clear that the hijackers had some ties to the Arab world, I had a slight dilemma on my hands. I spend a good deal of my intellectual and political life supporting the right of nations to self-determination, especially in the so-called "Third World." I strongly support the Palestinian's right to territory and peace, as I do Israel's right to exist. I opposed the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and many of its draconian military policies toward its neighbors and the subject Palestinian population, and in the days of the anti-apartheid movement we all criticized Israel's support of White minority rule in Southern Africa.

At the same time, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism has been disastrous for Africa and the Middle East, justifying enslavement, the oppression of women and violent attacks on religious minorities. And yet I have to explain to my daughter how U.S. policy in this region helped make this country, and our city, a target.

But these truths feel a little empty right about now. The chickens come home to roost? Yeah, but so what? Chickens can't bring back the dead. All I could really tell her is that we need to change U. …

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