Fourteen years ago this morning, my then-fiance, now-husband woke me up with, ''Celina, you need to get up. Something bad's happening." I was still working in restaurants at the time and had closed the night before, which meant I didn't get home from post-work bar stool occupation until around 3 AM. Normally, nothing would have dragged me out of bed before noon.
But that day was different. That day, I went into the living room of our itty bitty house in time to watch the first World Trade Center tower fall.
Every generation has a moment of history they remember always with absolute clarity. I'm not talking about personal history, but national or cultural or global. My mother remembered watching the Nazis roll into Paris when she was four, for example, and could describe everything she experienced during the course of that day from the fear to her father's anger to the smells of food coming from the kitchen of the restaurant he owned to the unnatural, sullen silence of the Parisians who watched, glowering, at the goosestepping army. My generation has a lot of those moments both good and bad--Watergate, the Miracle on Ice, the Challenger explosion, the Reagan assassination attempt, Live Aid--I could go on probably for a long time about all of these events. But only one do I envision over and over again. Only one intrudes on my dreams at night. Only one is seared on the backs of my eyelids so that I relive it every year on the same day. 9-11. The 2001 part is unnecessary. It's just 9-11, the darkest day in modern American history. Our Pearl Harbor. And even as the name "Pearl Harbor" incites a low, dark, growling kind of nationalist pride tempered with defiance and honed by anger, so too does 9-11.
Both will do so for a long time. But patriotic anger has the natural habit of converting into something else, building slowly and silently within our nation's culture, and I fear that's what is happening now in the US.
One of the advantages of living in America is that no one is stupid enough to attack us overtly. They don't send ships to try to blockade our coastlines--mostly because there's not a navy in the world that could possibly hope to succeed at doing so. Planes need bases to take off, land, and refuel from, and we'd see anyone coming a long time before they got into our waters these days. But terrorists with box cutters, seeking not money or concessions but death and the ability to deal death to thousands of others--well, we can't always see those guys coming. Despite our technological and financial superiority, we'll never be able to either. As the Boston Marathon bombing proved, all the espionage innovations imaginable aren't going to detect a pair of men with a grudge and a homemade bomb filled with screws and sharp metal. That's the new reality of our world, a reality that hadn't really been considered before 9-11-2001.
How long will this reality remain in place? The wars in the Middle East continue unabated, as they have since Israel became a state in 1948. Refugees from Middle Eastern countries are trying desperately to emigrate to another country--any other country--and, much like what happened after the concentration camps were liberated in Europe after Germany's fall, the European nations aren't all that interested in helping out. The Americans aren't interested in helping out either. According to the New York Times, the US announced a few hours ago that we would increase our intake of Syrian refugees "at least" to10,000 over the next year. The height of irony is that Germany has opened its doors where the US would not. Germany's numbers? They will accept half a million refugees a year. Other European countries--
France--24,000 over two years
Great Britain--20,000 over five years
Norway--8,000 by 2017
Finland 1,050 this year
And what makes this truly tragic is the undeniable and ugly edge of racial profiling that is being wielded here, as evidenced by this same New York Times article:
The announcement brought a variety of reactions that underscored how the refugee crisis has become another polarized political question. Aid groups called the administration’s action a token one given the size of the American economy and population, while a number of Republicans warned that Mr. Obama was allowing in potential terrorists. “Our enemy now is Islamic terrorism, and these people are coming from a country filled with Islamic terrorists,” said Representative Peter T. King, Republican of New York. “We don’t want another Boston Marathon bombing situation.”
Flabbergasted yet? This, our new reality, is the direct result of that September morning fourteen years ago. I went to sleep on September 10, 2001 still thinking that American claims to sanctuary and political asylum were sacrosanct. Unchangeable, because that concept was the foundation of American autonomy. 9-11 changed all that. When those planes slammed into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, when American passengers took their fate into their own hands and overpowered the terrorists on their plane before disintegrating upon contact with a Pennsylvanian field, the arms of America closed. No longer were we interested in offering refuge to the "wretched refuse" of any "teeming shore". Only non-Middle Eastern shores would provide immigrants deemed to be safe for inclusion in the US.
Not real fond of immigrants south of the border either. Makes me wonder--there's been a lot of talk in the past year about the Black Lives Matter movement. President Obama has referenced it himself. But I just have to assume that brown lives do not matter, just as Jewish lives didn't matter before WWII--and Holocaust survivors' lives didn't matter all that much post-war either. Didn't know that, did you? Thousands of lives could have been saved from the death camps if the US or UK, for example, had allowed Jews to immigrate from Germany and Austria in 1938-39. After the fall of Nazi Germany, British ships turned away vessels with hundreds, thousands of Jews from the Middle East for several years. Once the UN granted Israel statehood, the UK pulled every single man, machine, and ship out and left Israel to fend for itself. They stood absolutely alone. Even the US under Truman embargoed the sale of arms and ammunition to any country in the Middle East. In order for Israel to survive, it would have to do so without the help of any other country.
So we've got a history of doing things like this before. The Statue of Liberty, which stands so proudly in New York Harbor, is now a fallacy, a broken, forgotten icon of an ideology that was destroyed in a wave of paranoia and prejudice only thinly veiled by political double speak. Emma Lazarus's poem, once so inspiring to so many, might as well be the ingredients list on a box of cereal anymore.
Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
The golden door was slammed shut fourteen years ago today. While I understood the necessity of doing so back then, I don't see why such isolationism should still exist today. And it wouldn't, if it wasn't for the bean-headed ignorance of politicians like NY Rep. King, continuing to stir it up.
Because see--here's the thing: Bin Laden's goons didn't just destroy buildings or New York City. The planes weren't his victory over us. This racial profiling, these paranoid ideologies and delusions of danger are his real victory. He conquered us, not with violence but with fear that makes our nation reject the very principles upon which it was built.
His victory is now, today, in our living rooms and schools and shopping centers and government. HE created the fear, and upon that foundation of terrorism we allowed our government to construct this thought process that when we let people into the country, we are bringing in potential terrorists instead of citizens.
It doesn't seem like fourteen years ago this morning, the Twin Towers fell. If only we'd known then what was being dragged down with them, would our course have changed? Or would we still find ourselves here, trying to publicly justify why we should keep families fleeing from a never-ending war outside our borders?
I'm not even sure if I want to know the answer to that question.
So I'll watch the memorial services, as I always do. The reading of the names, the bells chiming, the whole and sickening replay of that day's events unfurling seamlessly in my mind's eye. I will say a prayer for those victims, as I always do. And I'll wonder how long the Statue of Liberty will remain, gleaming upon her pedestal, before hypocrisy tears her down.