I offer these thoughts and reflections on behalf of the entire NCCFT Executive Committee.
On this day twenty years ago, I was walking late to an 8:30 AM meeting in Bradley Hall, when a colleague stopped me in the hallway to say that a plane had just crashed into one of the Twin Towers. “Oh my God!” I said aloud, thinking to myself what a horrible accident as I kept walking. I figured I would learn the details later; the meeting was important—or at least it seemed so at the time—and so I headed once more towards the room where the meeting would be held. Shortly after that, someone else called out that a second plane had flown into the other Tower and that it was being labeled a terrorist attack. After that, I have only snippets of memory from that morning, the saddest, most hard-hitting of which is being in the English Department office while another one of my colleagues spoke on the phone with a friend who worked in I-don’t-remember-which Tower and then my colleague’s cry of anguish when the line went dead, just as we heard that the building her friend was in had collapsed.
I remember picking my son up from The Children’s Greenhouse and driving home in less traffic than I thought there would be, trying to listen to the radio while he—he was four at the time—babbled on happily in his child seat as if nothing had happened; and I remember sitting at the window in my living room when I got home and watching the smoke rise into the empty space where the Towers had been; and I remember that I was able to sit in that chair and watch that smoke rise for weeks afterwards, including on the night of October 7, 2001, when President George W. Bush announced “strikes against al Qaeda terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.”
We have, all of us, even those who were not yet born at the time, been living for the past two decades, in big ways and small, with the impact of those two attacks, the one against the United States on September 11th and the one ordered in retaliation against Afghanistan on October 7th. While we may today remember especially those we lost in the Twin Towers, or at the Pentagon, or on Flight 93, we also should not forget those who have perished since in the many battles that can be traced back to September 11, 2001; nor should we forget those whose lives were permanently changed by health problems and other injuries sustained in the immediate aftermath of September 11th or as a result those battles.
There is something else, too, that we should not forget. In the weeks, months, and years following the September 11th attacks, the transcendent solidarity so many of us felt as Americans was not extended to all who call this country home. I remember the racist graffiti on the storefronts of Indian restaurants in my neighborhood because someone assumed the businesses were owned by Muslims. I also remember reading about Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh-American who was murdered on September 15, 2001 because Frank Silva Roque decided that Sodhi was in fact an Arab Muslim. It’s easy to think of acts like these as isolated incidents, but a quick google search will reveal just how fraught the years following 2001 have been for Muslims and others in our country whom far too many are all-too-quick to place in the same category as the men who engineered and carried out the attacks of September 11th.
I raise this last point because I know there are members of the NCCFT who have experienced that racism and Islamophobia, either directly or because they and their loved ones have had to live with the anxiety it provokes; and I raise it as well because, as a union of higher education professionals, we need to remember that we work every day with students many of whom have experienced racism and Islamophobia as well, who bring the impact of that experience into our offices and classrooms, and therefore also into our lives. For us as a union, in other words, September 11th should be a day of committed memorializing, a day on which we honor the memory of those we’ve lost and on which we commit ourselves to a solidarity from which no one who calls this country home should be excluded.
Last year on September 11th, the NCCFT Executive Committee posted Billy Collins’ poem “The Names.” It is a powerfully moving tribute and I encourage you to read it. This year, as a complement to that poem, I’d like to offer you Suheir Hammad’s “First Writing Since,” which is also a moving tribute, but from a very different perspective. To respond adequately to what this day calls us to, both of these perspectives are necessary.