I think I must have been holding some brightly colored toy. I remember the flash of color falling from my hands to the ground as my mother’s bloodcurdling scream reached my ears. I ran into the house to see what had happened. My aunt, uncles, grandmother and mother stood crowding around the TV screen. They had closed faces of general disbelief while my mother stood crying hysterically in the middle. I remember a hand coming to cover a mouth, eyes bulging, a limp cigarette dropping ashes on the living room floor. I knew something big, bigger than us, was happening from they way they could not hear me as I shouted “what’s wrong?” from the fact that they didn’t feel me yanking at their sleeves. So I tried to understand what the television was showing us, but it was a blur of strange sounds and incomprehensible images. Flames and something familiar, something I had seen on countless postcards my whole life. The live stream from CNN was dubbed by an Italian newscaster. The volumes of their voices were equal, like two people shouting over one another. Their words tangled around each other so I couldn’t understand either of them. All I knew was that the place on the TV was New York. “Una delle le due torri. Colpita. We do not yet know che cosa sia accaduto.” Then the second tower was hit and my family began yelling.
The day before, on September 10th, my older sister had flown out to New York to reach my dad. My mother and I were meant to follow them soon after. We were returning to our home, the city I was born in, after several years abroad. My mother tried frantically to reach my sister, then father and aunt all living in New York. We knew my cousin Sol went to high school in downtown Manhattan near Wall Street. The phone lines weren’t working. We had no idea where they were. My mother made me go to a friend’s house as originally planned for that afternoon. She remained home next to the phone the entire time. My friend’s family took me in for the afternoon with pitying faces and sideways glances. I wanted to talk to my dad. While my friend asked me if New York was all broken I tried to focus on believing that my family wasn’t dead. But that wouldn’t be possible until that night when my mother finally reached my aunt Tina.
My mom’s account of the day is as follows “I did not reach Papa for two days, I reached Tina towards the end of the day and found out that poor Sol had walked from the vicinity of the towers from where her school was located all the way to the Bronx in a continuous asthma attack and reached her home that night. Your sister had arrived to NY the day before from Italy to start school and was terribly shocked. She was in Brooklyn at friends’ house and on September 13 [your step-dad], whom I barely knew then, managed to go pick her up under incessant rain and brought her to the Bronx. It took three hours to cross all of Manhattan and the bridge to the Bronx, it was heavily militarized and nearly impossible to go through.”
The next day I went to school and before our morning prayer of Ave Maria we had a moment of silence for New York. The children in my class giggled and whispered, elbowing each other while staring at me. Later a boy in my class exclaimed excitedly that there was no point in me moving to New York anymore because it had all been squashed and flattened by the tall towers that fell. I stayed quiet, unsure as to whether he was right or not.
On October 29 we would return to Brooklyn. I couldn’t understand why my mother and sister so loved this city in which I was born but had never known. The people in the streets always looked scared, angry, or both. The police, who I had already by age nine, like all good children of leftists, learned to distrust, were everywhere. People, especially if they were ‘brown’ or ‘visibly Muslim’, were constantly getting stopped by the police, all of them potential terrorists. Everything was cold and hard in the traumatized city. I had arrived to a city gripped by fear, mistrust and an incredibly high and invasive level of military surveillance. The city was overcome by an ahistorical view of politics, like that of most of the country, leaving me with understanding that September 11th was an act of terror with abstract roots. This emotive confusion was one fed by much of the media and the political climate around me. The message I received from nearly all angles was that we were a land of righteous victimhood, a land that needed to prove that we would not be brought to our knees by anyone or anything.
In New York the memory of 9/11 loomed over everything. People told me about the paper and ash that covered the far corners of the city afterward. A friend recounted seeing the flying pieces of white paper from the offices flying across river and settling over the streets of Brooklyn. The stories that most immortalize heroism to the average New Yorker are those of the firemen that walked into the crumbling towers fully aware that they would not be coming out again. And the image that always remained most imprinted in my mind from the infinite amount of footage I watched again and again are of those desperately small black dots falling from the buildings, people who decided to jump. Those small specks, almost dust-like, seeming to float so slowly toward the concrete 86 floors bellow, were people. And so America learned that day what a great deal of the world already knew far too intimately. We learned what it feels like to see people reduced to dust. We saw what it means to have monuments of national power burn to the ground.
What I only learned later though was that ours was not the first 9/11. It wasn’t until I took two social studies courses in my high school which dealt with the history of the US military operations during the Cold War, and the CIA’s involvement throughout the Muslim and Latin American world that I was finally able to understand that these attacks were not as abstract and random as they had always seemed. One of the first things I learned about in those courses was that in 1973 a U.S. backed coup d’etat was executed against the democratically elected president of Chile, Salvador Allende. The man who took his place was Augusto Pinochet, a name which still strikes terror into the hearts of Chileans today. This man’s military junta controlled Chile through constant terror and oppression until 1990. The victims of his regime are in the hundreds of thousands and are known as “los desaparecidos” (the disappeared). I have since (driven by my Latin American roots) spent many years learning all I could about the US involvement in Latin America. I learned that the U.S. proxy war strategy called Operation Condor which ravaged Latin America throughout the Cold War followed a relatively repetitive pattern. It essentially goes as follows: A democratically elected leftist government either rose to power, or attempted to. The U.S backed extreme right took power in the form of what was generally a military dictatorship. The dictatorships then went on to use political oppression, extreme levels of surveillance and overall state terror to crush all leftist movements and sentiment. Then we, America, wrote ourselves off as the “champions of democracy”, which translated directly into “vanquishers of communism”. While this may be seen as a perhaps rather simplistic overview it is a general outline which does not in any way essentialize or reduce the issue. I was overwhelmed by the amount of covert operations that followed this model. I found dizzying lists of documents on the NSA and CIA’s own archival sites now open to the public related to The Banana Wars, The Bay of Pigs, Kissinger’s approval of Argentina’s Dirty Wars (and Operation Charly), the devastation fueled in Nicaragua and El Salvador, or that the American owned United Fruit Company, now called Chiquita Banana, played a major role in the 1954 Guatemalan coup.
So where does this fit in with the 9/11 I watched happen on television? Well, sometimes history is more cyclical than our Western perspective would like to believe. I do not see us our world as moving forward in a straight line toward ever increasing progress, American foreign policy alone could disprove such thinking as pure Enlightenment based idealism. 2001 exposed the insidiousness of the Cold War’s legacy, for our proxy war in Afghanistan seemed to have all the same players as usual, and followed the same formula, the only difference being that the outcome is one that even the Western world is paying for dearly to this day. I am of the conviction that this wave of extremism spreading presently across the globe can only be classified as Islamist by people as perverse and backward as the Western right-wing media and the extremists themselves. Therefore, I will refrain from using the word Islamist in correlation with their organizations for they have been taught religion not by a scripture by a rage inherited from the pure chaos the West did its fair share in fueling.
The role of the C.I.A prior to and during the Afghan-Soviet War instigated destabilization. The left wing opposition to the Soviet Union’s presence in Afghanistan was never considered for support by the U.S. Instead the C.I.A spent hundreds of millions per year to fund the mujahideen in the operation called Cyclone. I find this name telling of the main interest of the operation, which was to create as much chaos as possible in order to create a climate the Soviets could have no control over; for as this journalist puts it “It was, in the minds of America’s Cold War leaders, a rare chance to bloody the Soviets, to give them a taste of the sort of defeat the Vietnamese, with Soviet help, had inflicted on Washington the decade before” (Truse, The Nation).
The mujahideen would later go on to form the Taliban, using valuable resources, training and arms (which also became easily available in the black markets of Afghanistan and Pakistan for example) to propagate their own nefarious agendas. After spending years weakening the Soviets by providing our future attackers with the arms and training necessary to completely destabilize Afghanistan, the U.S. left it a country ravaged by the war, with no institutions of education in place aside from those built and run by the Taliban itself. But perhaps the most painfully clear indicator to keep in mind is that among the ranks of mujahideen was a young man named Osama Bin Laden. Until it is recognized that without the U.S. al-Qaeda could not have existed, we will never be safe from the cycle of warfare we currently live in. None of this is news. It takes a Google search to find all of this out. The documents informing all I have argued so far are all declassified by the CIA themselves and laid bare on their websites. Yet we see how many Arabs and South Asians live under constant fear and threat of violence within the U.S. today where post-9/11 hate crimes directed at these demographics are rampant.
“Never Forget” are words often written over photos of the Twin Towers in flames. This slogan has become an icon in post-9/11 America. I have always been cautious around the use of “Never Forget”. It is a phrase which I have more often than not experienced as binding the reactionary and the wounded in a dangerous way. It feels at this point as if it is synonymous with an ardent form of patriotism drenched in pro-military and Islamophobic rhetoric. Where does our rage come from, what was this shock we are still recovering from born of? Is it just the justified anguish that any nation would, and should experience after such an attack? I wish it were, but I believe there is something more, something which gets to the core of what is wrong with the way America views the world and its privileged place within it. At the heart of “Never Forget” is a pride driven ruthlessness. We are America. We are Americans. This does not happen to us. These are the phrases tied to the “Never Forget” culture. Forget just enough to put us in the position of the righteous. Forget all that has been done in our name which so closely resembles that which was done to us. 2001 was wrong because it happened to us, not because it happened. This is what I believe we are truly saying when we say Never Forget.
But lately I have changed my mind. I would like to stand behind this slogan. I want to reclaim it in the name of those who truly haven’t forgotten. Because fundamentally I do agree, we should never forget…any of it. We should never forget the Cold War, the terror and the terrorism the U.S government spread across the globe. If we forget this we will see nothing wrong with the way we “fight terrorism” today. We won’t see our tactics as being as repetitive and ineffective as they truly are. Indeed, our wars are effective primarily in making the military industrial complex the most powerful institution of corruption we have within the U.S and internationally; and laying a flag over these crimes does nothing but further brutalize the memories of lives lost in both 2001 and 1973. I firmly believe that no Americans fighting overseas have died for America, or Freedom or for Liberty. But rather that all of the people, governments and cultures who have been destroyed since the Cold War to today have died for an elite group of puppet masters hidden safely from view. Yet every year we send out more and more troops of men and women who believe they are facing death for the safety of Americans, but what safety can be brought by playing the same game that made us lose so much?
One might refer to Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, his ‘historical archaeology’ of methods used to keep a population or society in check: ‘Punishment…tend(s) to become the most hidden part of the penal process…Justice no longer takes public responsibility for the violence that is bound up with its practice…an element of itself that it is obliged to tolerate, that it finds difficult to account for.’ What might oblige states to justify or to keep hidden the ‘imperialistic penal process’ and all of its violence, so to speak? The elite group of puppet masters lives on, and controls. As do our mistakes, tied up with pride and (now) hyper-nationalistic rhetoric. One might say that the 9/11 of popular consciousness, that is, the 9/11 of 2001, has changed our world in irreversible ways. An entire generation has grown up with these consequences. Directly or indirectly as a result, major portions of the world find themselves in a constant state of war or conflict. The current refugee crisis is yet to make a significant impact on our city, Berlin, yet one can quite simply expect that it will. How many of the world’s problems can be attributed to American hegemonic tendencies, collective self-righteousness and megalomania? According to what Annette Groth of the German Parliament, spokeswoman for human rights for the Left Party said when returning “from a trip to Hungary, where she saw thousands of migrants stranded at the Budapest train station, [when asking herself] “What is the root for this massive migration?”…”It is war, it is terror, and it is the former U.S. government who is accountable for it” (Democracy Now!).
I often think back to the day my game in the garden was interrupted by the shrill scream which so violently broke me into the world outside of me, the world which suddenly stretched so far past my home, my family, my city and country. I feel like I am still running to the television, still seeing that strange scene play out, still trying to find my father and sister in the crowds shown running through the streets of New York. Only now I am not (hopefully) as confused, though the television still speaks in as doubled and strange a way as it did that day.
Nothing emerged exclusively from the Manhattan of 2001. Neither did it start with Allende. Perhaps it started with the desire to go West. Then East. North. South. And everything in between. Perhaps it started with our ignorance of history, and a comforting, stale view of supposedly inherent virtues of one way of life as opposed to another. Perhaps the desire should have been to go Left.