On September 11, 2001 I was teaching a fifth grade class at Thirteenth Avenue School in Newark, New Jersey. Mrs. Thompson, the teacher from across the hall, stuck her head into my classroom and said, “The twin towers have been hit by a plane.” My first thought was, “I can’t believe this is happening when George Bush is the President.”
My disbelief and anxiety grew over the next few weeks with each American flag that popped up, with each jingoistic commercial created to instill a sense of entitlement and superiority while gutting our democracy. The camera, below the podium angled upward at a seemingly human Giuliani, the patron saint of capitalism, “Go Shopping!” he declared, this is how you can help your country! With each compliant and alarmist headline, peace activists became criminals, those who questioned the government and the nature of the attacks were unpatriotic. The politics of 9-11 hid behind the heroism of the first-responders (George Bush called them rescuers) to justify a policy that would destroy an entire region and hundreds of thousands of lives while making Halliburton an ungodly profit. Communists were no longer the elusive phantom that justified illegal torture at home and abroad, now we could declare never-ending war on burqas and turbans without differentiating between Iraq and Afghanistan, between Shiite or Sunni. And the Patriot Act.
My second thought that day, which still makes my stomach lurch and my throat tighten even today, 14 years later, was along the lines of “This is what it’s like in Baghdad all the time.”1 This is what it’s like in many parts of the world every day who don’t have the resources to lose cell service for only a couple of hours during an emergency, who don’t have fire departments and rescue squads and blood donors flooding the phones to help, who don’t have crucial things that we take for granted like running water or readily available medicine.
That thought made me hopeful in a way I can’t explain. I believed the good people of America would see this as a new opportunity for peace. That we would consider ourselves not as a nation but as part of the whole human family and reassess our convenient distance from bombing and death, our desensitization and video gamification of war. I could not understand or accept that American lives were more valuable than any other country.
The mainstream press did a pretty great job during that time toting the party line, of not questioning authority or doing any real investigating into what led up to the attacks. 9-11 became a random act where Al-Qaeda just hated our way of life. Giuliani under scrutiny for his defense of police brutality, and George Bush, a Yale graduate who could not negotiate object and subject pronouns but who was able to steal the presidency of the most powerful nation in the world, were absolved from their sins and fitted for shiny new halos.
But, most people are good and righteous and the truth does matter. Despite a co-ordinated campaign on behalf of the press and government to rile everyone up into a red, white and blue frenzy, before and as the U.S. sent so many young men and women to perish and be destroyed physically and emotionally in Iraq (which again, had nothing to do with 9-11), there was a monumental movement against the impending invasion. Hundreds of thousands of people marched in the streets for peace and against an invasion, many of which carried signs that read, “I drink cabernet and I vote!” Because of France’s distinguished and correct position against the war, they almost lost their cultural right to french fries in this country.
Irregardless, the US invaded Iraq and Afghanistan. According to a study published in National Geographic 2 years ago, 500,000 or half a million Iraqis are dead.4 This number only includes the deaths between 2003 and 2011 and not the frequent bombings before the 2003 invasion. In a report published by Physicians for Social Responsibility, between 72,500 and 116,000 civilians have been estimated to be casualties of the war in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2011.5 On October 3rd, a hospital in Afghanistan was bombed, and nobody changed their FaceBook profile picture or even sent prayers. On November 14th, the day before the attacks in Paris, 40 people lost their lives in Beirut. I didn’t even know. And still I am asking why do American lives, or French lives matter so much more? I want someone to explain to me, the difference between a family who has the unfortunate circumstance of living in a country that the United States has decided to bomb, the terror that they feel and the terror that overcame Paris on November 13, 2015. What makes one life more valuable? What makes one attack more terrifying?
On Friday November 20th, at 9:30 in the morning, I read about hostages being taken in Mali. FaceBook was quiet. There were no fancy lights on any buildings. I read about the only American who was killed, Anita Ashok Datar of Takoma Park, Md. I didn’t put it together she might be the same Anita Datar from Flanders, New Jersey. Anita and I were friends in elementary school. Children, probably now divorced alcoholics in debt with terrible stretch marks and bad teeth called us names, teasing us. I was Lacey Klutz. Anita was “I need a guitar.” “That’s really clever,” I said one day. “It’s like a whole sentence and it totally rhymes.” Anita did not like that at all. Even then she was sensitive and sophisticated. “It’s not even mean!” I protested. But I still imagined her shredding in the secrecy of her bedroom, below the watchful gaze of Cabbage patch dolls and Strawberry Shortcake.
I grieve for her family, but I take courage and inspiration from her brother, Sanjeev who told the Washington Post: “And while we are angry and saddened that she has been killed, we know that she would want to promote education and healthcare to prevent violence and poverty at home and abroad, not intolerance.”6
Anita lived her life helping others, she was recognized as a leader in her field, and worked to eliminate HIV/AIDS throughout developing countries, primarily sub-Saharan Africa. In a statement issued by Palladium, Anita’s employer, Ambassador Debbi Birx, is quoted as saying, “we were so fortunate to have such an extraordinary woman dedicated to ending HIV/AIDS and standing up for human rights. She inspires all of us to do better…we admired Anita’s compassion and sensitivity and true commitment to the cause.” As people from a privileged country, whose lives are somehow more precious when taken by an act of terror, we have a choice to either accept supreme status, or, forego a global caste system and use our temporary darkness to shed light on a brighter future. We can take the time to really analyze our own chauvinism which blinds us to the true nature of these attacks and work towards real peace. We can all do better. We have to.