Where were you when you heard the news?
It was my second week of eighth grade, and I came upstairs after a shower to find my mother in the family room, watching the morning news. It wasn’t unusual to find her up this early, nor, I think, to have the TV on. Diane Sawyer, Charlie Gibson, and the late Peter Jennings were a welcome presence in my household at any time of day.
Last night I went on YouTube and watched nearly two hours of ABC news footage from that morning—the same footage I would have watched ten years ago. A sudden interruption of the regular programming; Diane and Charlie tell us that something has struck one of the World Trade Center towers; then a continual stream of footage.
What had happened? No one knew then. Some kind of explosion. Was it a plane?
Watching everyone try to construct some kind of meaning out of this in those first minutes, those first hours, is engrossing. The sense of helplessness, of confusion, of fear: you could reach through the TV and feel the hackles on their neck.
And, of course, the big question:
Who DID this?
Reaching back into the memories of my eighth-grade self, this was the real question on everyone’s mind. New words, new syllables and sounds were the first to reach my ears from a foreign region. Someone from “The Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine” was the first to claim responsibility; a senior member of the group declared their innocence soon afterwards. Then, the real name, thrown around over shots of burning buildings and falling bodies:
Osama bin Laden. The first Muslim name to ever reach my ears.
And the hijackers’ names: I remember one right away. Mohammad Atta, the ringleader. The other eighteen I pulled from Wikipedia: Waleed al-Shehri, Wail al-Shehri, Abdulaziz al-Omari, Satam al-Suqami, Marwan al-Shehhi, Fayez Banihammad, Mohand al-Shehri, Hamza al-Ghamdi, Ahmed al-Ghamdi, Hani Hanjour, Khalid al-Mindhar, Majed Moqed, Nawaf al-Hazmi, Salem al-Hazmi, Ziad Jarrah, Ahmed al-Haznawi, Ahmed al-Nami, and Saeed al-Ghamdi.
Think of the significance of that. A whole generation whose earliest collective memory is of nearly 3,000 dead at the hands of Muslims. The images poured in over the next days, and weeks, and months: tanned children in dusty, dancing for joy in front of old, battered, fuzzy TVs. Ululations expelled in the foreign tongue of a foreign land.
My first Muslims. In my mind’s eye, I can still see Atta’s face; he was fearsome, certainly, to my eighth-grade mind, though he only saddens me now.
Issa the prophet, whom we Christians call Christ, said this: “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”
Yet, how to love Mohammad Atta?
And how to love Ahmed al-Haznawi?
How do we love the foreigner, the stranger—the Other, the “not us”?
I don’t claim to have all the answers, of course. But I think that one way to love people (even dead people, perhaps) is through curiosity. You can demonstrate your love for someone by asking questions. By learning.
Learning (and teaching!), done in the right spirit, is an act of love.
Almost certainly, my interest in and passion for Islam, for the Middle East and its peoples, and for how to respond as Christians stems from what I saw that morning 10 years ago. Everyone has responded somehow—and I, in my own way, have responded (and this is so typical of me, I can just imagine my girlfriend rolling her eyes) by wanting to know. And now, I feel another response arising within me: wanting to share.
So, for the tenth anniversary of 9/11 I’ve resolved to do a better job at sharing my own knowledge (though slim!) about, and experiences (though brief!) with, a culture and people that we have in the last 10 years made thoroughly Other, and, at times, made enemy. It’s the best response I can think of, a decade later, to what happened on 9/11.
I’ll be doing five posts total, not including this one. So, I hope you will click over every once in a while! I’ve been looking forward to sharing this for a very long time, and it’s one of the ways I hope to show my gratitude towards those who empowered and encouraged me to go on my trip to the Middle East, as well as those who received me so hospitably while I was there.
May these coming posts be demonstrations of respect, honor, and most of all, love for those people.