Sunday, September 11, 2011

Grappeling with national tragedy as a cultural outsider


When 9/11 happened and I watched panic, terror, and shock grip so many people around me, I confused at first. Why was everyone so freaked out? It was a tragedy, but people didn't react with the same level of panic, terror, and shock when the tsunami hit Asia a few years later. 230,000 people died in Asia. 3,000 people died on Sept. 11th. Before you tell me I'm insensitive to the level of tragedy, hear me out.

Both at the time and now, I think 9/11 shattered this feeling of safety and security that many Americans had. The rest of the world was a dangerous place, but we think (or have thought) that our civil society is safe. Thus 9/11, even if most people weren't personally connected to anyone who was injured or killed, felt like a blow to the emotional psyche of America. People felt vulnerable, afraid, unstable. They had no paradigm to put it in. It was deeply personal. It changed a lot of how people think around here.

At the time I couldn't relate to that for a couple of reasons. First off, I was brand new in the US and I grew up without that sense of security that Americans grew up with. Some of my good friends evacuated a nearby island in the midst of riots. Our car was burned in riots. Soon after Sept. 11th much of the "downtown" of my "hometown" overseas was burned. News of natural disasters and attacks were common enough that they were always sad but also felt like.... life. That's the way life is. We are all vulnerable. No amount of wealth or security is going to make us invulnerable. I think that's actually a healthy thing for Americans to realize - feeling invulnerable is believing a facade.

And so I was truly confused by the total sense of instability that hit my classmates at Moody after 9/11.
However, I also didn't understand the magnitude of the attack. I saw it as a couple buildings being brazenly destroyed. As Brett said in his blog, I sort of pictured a little Cessna flying into a building, not really realizing either the size of the plane, the hijacking, or the immensity of the WTC. It wasn't until someone told me that the scale of the attack and the deaths involved surpassed Pearl Harbor that I realized how massive this was for the USA. I knew Pearl Harbor was huge for us - an attack on our soil, many deaths, and I was shaken to realize that this was bigger.

Thirdly, I think my disassociation from the emotion of it all shows my lack of ownership in my own identity as an American. I mentioned the tsunami earlier. That tsunami devastated parts of Indonesia. How did Americans react to it? I think most of them watched the footage on TV and were sobered and saddened, they prayed for the victims, maybe donated money. However, it didn't hit home as a personal loss, it didn't shake your home personally. That's how 9/11 felt for me. It happened to the USA. That didn't feel personal because.... I felt very much like an "other" looking in on this tragedy that was happening to a nation that I wasn't a part of. I felt sympathy and sadness, but not ownership in the tragedy. I still struggle a bit with that. I read the stories, I realize how big this tragedy was, how sad, something to mourn.... and I recognize that I didn't mourn.

Bret McCracken's blog about 9/11 says this:  (go read it, the whole thing is good!)
Beyond terrorism, we watched as natural disasters unfolded in unprecedented ways: Katrina’s destruction and its accompanying politics, the Asian tsunamis, the Haiti earthquake, etc. We watched the stock market collapse in a week. We watched wars unfold in the Middle East. We watched unemployment rise and the recession linger.
Am I a member of the “9/11 Generation?” I don’t know. But the day certainly altered my view of the world. 9/11 happened two weeks into my college career, two weeks into my life as an independent adult. The post-9/11 world has been my paradigm of adult life. And what does that mean for me?
I think it means that no calamitous event really surprises me anymore. It’s expected. The Norway shooter from a few months ago? Egregious. Evil. But entirely expected. Countries like Iceland going completely broke? Of course....But 10 years after 9/11, the world is still coping, still hoping, still working, still here. Just as 10 years after Rome fell, the world pressed on, and a generation after the Plague wiped out half of Europe, people still laughed.

I, like Bret, watched 9/11 two weeks into my college career. I woke up late and went running through the Moody Commons to my Personal Evangelism class. There was a TV on in Commons as I ran past and I saw a photo of a hole and a fire in one of the Twin Towers. I thought it was a movie and continued on the class, not thinking anything of it.

When I got to class some of my classmates informed me that the movie I thought I'd seen was real and that a plane had flown into one of the WTC towers. Students were praying, everyone was somber. I wasn't sure what to make of it. The professor never came so we left. I went with my good friend Canada Dave to the lobby of his dorm to keep watching footage on their tv.

It was huddled around that TV that I saw the second tower fall.

 At that point the city of Chicago was evacuating the big buildings around us and my own 10 story dorm was evacuated. Students were scattered across campus, crying, praying, etc. In my emotional disassociation I spent the afternoon hanging out with friends that also hadn't grown up in the US. That evening my friend Mandy and I took advantage of the empty streets and went rollerblading through the downtown, actually past the Sears Tower that was also rumored to be targetted. 10 years later and much more personally for me, Mandy is gone.

I will never forget that day, never forget the all-school chapel that was called an hour later and the words Dr. Stowell spoke about where God is in the midst of tragedy. I remember standing on the WTC years before, looking over NY. I now also remember the day Bin Laden was killed. History marches on. Tragedies and redemption keep happening.

It only ends once.


Jaimie said...

Tsunami: natural occurrence. 9/11: attack. Big difference emotionally. It's not just about realizing you're not secure or your life is in danger. That's part of it. But with 9/11 came the very valid realization that people out there want to kill American civilians.

Jaimie said...

(Although I recognize the WTC was chosen symbolically because of our oil-crazed meddling and we have killed plenty of their civilians. I understand that now, but most people weren't clued into that back then, myself included.)

Melissa said...

i related to what you said about recognizing the tragedy and realizing how big it was, but not personally mourning for it. i didn't mourn after 9/11 either, because i didn't feel personally connected to it. but i mourned when the earthquake and tsunami hit japan (exactly 6 months ago yesterday) because it was once my home, even though i haven't actually lived there in years. for me, it was much more personal.

Stacia said...

The tsunami in Asia was also much more personal to me, even though Singapore wasn't hugely affected. I had been to one of the cities in Thailand just a year before it was almost completely destroyed.

A tsunami was also more impacting emotionally because it was one of my childhood fears, growing up in the tropics. In a weird way, I was more used to hearing about terrorist attacks, both in Asia and especially the Middle East, and so one in the U.S. carried about the same weight as other tragic terrorist attacks.

9/11 is also interesting for me personally as it is my birthday! While I do respect that people need to mourn, I try not to be too sad on my birthday.

Mr Lonely said...

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