Monday, September 12, 2011

Remembering that day

A lot’s been written and said about the tenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, ranging from the crass to the wonderful. Good or bad, it’s been almost impossible to avoid it completely, even on the other side of the world.

I don’t have any commentary to add, so instead I’ll mention a few things from my experience of that day and its aftermath, and also a couple things from NZ that I think are worth a look.

But first, the start of my journal entry for that day:
“It was one of those ‘where were you when you heard’ moments. Our alarm clock went off, as it does every morning, and the same familiar announcer began reading the morning news. ‘In the worst terrorist attack the world has ever seen,’ he began, ‘both towers of New York's World Trade Center have been destroyed. Thousands are thought to have died.’”
The rest of my entry was about my day, which was, to be honest, not very different from many other people. However, one thing I haven’t mentioned before is how the events of that day made me downplay being American.

The morning of that day, the US Embassy was urging Americans in New Zealand to keep a very low profile, since at that point it was unclear if more attacks were imminent, or if there might be individuals who’d use the events as inspiration to attack American citizens. That day I tried not to speak to strangers or, if I did, to stick with simple words that wouldn’t reveal my accent too much.

In the days that followed, I made other changes. A friend had sent me some t-shirts, and I had some souvenir t-shirts from our trip to Washington, DC two years earlier, all of which had clearly American sayings (ike “USA” in big letters) or with US flags. I stopped wearing them and, in fact, refrained from wearing them for years afterward, even around the house.

This downplaying of my American identity began out of concern for my personal safety on that horrific day, and was renewed by the same concern because of the invasions of Afghanistan and then Iraq. By the time of the fifth anniversary of the attacks, I often allowed people to think I was Canadian (although by then that had more to do with the fact that George Bush was pretty universally reviled by ordinary people, and I really didn’t want to deal with that when I’d never voted for him).

It’s only been in recent years that I’ve re-asserted my American identity, which now sits proudly next to my identity as a foreign-born New Zealander. I’m sure that would have happened regardless, but it was certainly delayed by the events of that day ten years ago.

The New Zealand Herald posted a good reflective article, “Kiwis remember 'day from hell'” with recollections of some people who lived through that day. It includes an American couple who were supposed to leave NZ for the US that day, but who were stranded here when flights to the US were grounded. They were so impressed with the kindness they received that a year later they moved here to live.

David Huebner, the US Ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa, posted to his blog his remarks at a special service of remembrance in New Plymouth (with photos of the service). The USA Eagles national rugby team would play their first match in the Rugby World Cup in that town later in the evening. He said about that:
“Today is a challenging day, but the juxtaposition of solemn remembrance and exuberant sport is not as discordant as it may seem at first blush. It is essential that we remember the 3,000 people murdered on 9-11, but it is equally essential that we celebrate the resilience of the human spirit and the courage and strength of communities visited by tragedy. So we carry on.”
I think he’s absolutely right about that. In fact, that determination to carry on was why I went into work that day ten years ago, despite the Embassy strongly urging caution.

Finally, on the Red Alert blog, New Zealand Labour MP Grant Robertson recalls the loss of a friend that day. Robertson and his partner had moved back to New Zealand from New York City a few months before the attacks, so the attacks resonated with them on many levels.

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