I had been married for just a few weeks. We had driven to work together, as we did every morning. We arrived on campus, the college situated directly on an Upstate New York Finger Lake. The morning was bright and beautiful. My husband went to his office in IT, and I went to the English Department.
Someone came running down the hall and said a plane just hit one of World Trade Towers. We all gasped, but each of us said, full of assumptions, in varying ways: “What a terrible accident.”
Someone was listening to news on the radio from her office. She screamed out, “Another plane, it’s another plane.” Silence.
It was no accident
Soon the hallway was filled just outside her door and other radios were turned on. (I and most people at that time had no phones to pull out of our pockets, and thus we were pulled together immediately.) We gathered around those who had radios in their offices and as newscasters began putting the ragged pieces together of 3 plane attacks and one failed attempt, those who had family in Manhattan were looking for an office phone to call their loved ones.
Located just a few hours from where the attacks occurred, our college was home to many students and faculty who either came from NYC or knew someone there. As faculty, we thought holding class rather than canceling would give our students a safe space to grieve, to feel rage, to not be alone. This was the first day of the new semester. I had to teach Writing 101.
Writing to understand
The students and I had never met before. A few students were inconsolable (one couldn’t connect with her brother living in Manhattan). Some were hungry for revenge. Some were in shock, and no emotion registered on their faces. I was suddenly thrown into the role of group therapist (I had an English degree). To help students feel safe and connected, I asked each to share one word. I wrote these words on the chalkboard, the dust leaving trails of their hopes, fears, anger, confusion, and questions.
I went home that night and threw out my syllabus. I used those words to build a new syllabus. Each paper that semester would focus on one of those words.
I received papers about terrorism, about freedom, about loss, about heroism, about “good and evil”, about oppression, about rage, and about sacrifice.
Through writing, my students and I learned to think critically about what we heard on the news, to see the complexities of international politics, to deeply consider what motivates a human being to kill oneself and others in an act of protest, resistance, and as a response to disenfranchisement, tyranny, and rage. And too, what motivates men and women to risk their lives to save others, most complete strangers.
And we rise
Two years later, my husband and I had moved to San Francisco so I could become a therapist. I wrote a capstone thesis about how anxiety and fear were political weapons used by our government (GW Bush at the time), to take people’s rights away, to justify war, to gain more power. The parallels to today cannot be understated. We attended protest after protest in the Bay Area, opposing a war that is still smoldering in Afghanistan and Iraq today.
There are many victims of terrorism, and too many at the hands of those whose responsibility it is to protect us. I write today, after attending 3 days of protests in my city of Rochester, NY, after the unspeakable murder of a Black man under the knee of a police officer called to protect him.
Terrorism has many forms, and today, my thoughts are with ALL the survivors, and with ALL the victims of ALL forms of terrorism on this day and every day here in the United States and across the world.