Five years ago Monday, the United States was attacked by a group of 19 Al Qaeda terrorists who targeted four fully fueled jetliners at the twin towers of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the Capitol Building. Three of the four suicide-bomber-manned planes reached their targets, while the fourth crashed in a Pennsylvania field, resulting altogether in nearly 3000 deaths. It was, by far, the most catastrophic foreign attack on US soil in the nation’s history.
THINKING ABOUT 9/11: Five years after 9/11, ten prominent local thinkers weigh in on how the terrorist attacks affected their ideas.
Even now, the raw fact of it seems peculiarly ungraspable. And yet every one of us has woven threads of the event’s meaning into our lives, intentionally or not. The Phoenix decided to ask ten people prominent in a range of fields this question:
Over the past five years, have you changed your mind dramatically about anything of fundamental importance as a result of September 11?
It is a simple question, really, yet surprisingly difficult to answer — even for unusually articulate, thoughtful people accustomed to sharing their ideas with the public. Their answers follow.
Pagan Kennedy, novelist
In the days after 9/11, I was possessed by fear of a new era of racial violence in America, that thousands of Arab-Americans would be killed, beaten, or driven out of business. I felt I had to do whatever I could to help create an atmosphere of tolerance. Like everyone else at that time, I was in a state of temporary insanity. A friend told me that female activists in San Francisco — women who were not Muslims — had started wearing head scarves. Supposedly they did this in order to make the streets safer for Muslim women, the idea being that if there were a lot of people walking around in head scarves, any one of them was less likely to be spit on or attacked. I had a sense that this activists-wearing-headscarves story was apocryphal, but I nonetheless decided that I would deck myself out in a headscarf and walk around Boston. The idea gripped me like a fever. Then after a few days, my mind snapped back into its usual shape, and I couldn’t believe that I had actually considered putting on a freakin’ veil. That’s what was so strange about 9/11: your mind would caroom from one opinion to another, from one sense of reality to another, within a matter of days.
Ultimately, I ended up working with a group of writers to put on an event at the Coolidge Corner Theater, a celebration of Arab and Arab-American literature. It took place in November, when the air was still thick with paranoia. The sign on the Coolidge Corner said ARAB READING in huge red letters, right there in the middle of Brookline. I remember being terrified that people would throw rocks at us, or that someone in line would be hurt. It turned out to be a fabulous evening; hundreds of people came and we spilled out of the theater without generating much attention.
Here’s what I learned: that there are circumstances that will twist your personality and make you recant your dearest beliefs. That a moment in history can wash over you and blot you out. That fear is a headscarf.
Eli Pariser, Executive Director of MoveOn.org
I’ve changed my mind in two, kind of contradictory ways. One is that, before 9/11, I really had a perhaps naive faith that while public officials were occasionally corrupt and sometimes placed politics above sensible policies on tragedies and events of this magnitude, that surely no one would twist them to entirely opportunistic and unrelated ends — especially a president. It was a nice thing to feel about your country, to have that kind of faith. And it was shaken and probably destroyed somewhat for me by the way this president and his team skillfully manipulated the aftershocks of 9/11 to push us into a war that had nothing to do with it.
So, on the one hand, it made me more cynical than I was. On the other hand, it made me hopeful because that moment after 9/11 when it was clear that not just Americans were in this together but that the whole world was, was an incredibly beautiful moment and spirit, and it’s re-emerged from time to time after the attacks. It re-emerged when millions of people from around the world came together to oppose the war. After Katrina was another time when you saw people really reaching out to one another and pulling together in the face of something catastrophic.
So I guess the flip side is that while I never would have guessed leaders could be so craven, I also had no experience of people being as good as they were after the attacks, and that’s opened my eyes also. That spirit of generosity is what drives the members of MoveOn to do what they do, which is essentially that there is no quid pro quo as in most of politics, where if you lobby really successfully your paycheck goes up at the end of the day. There’s been this kind of renewed commitment to the greater good after the attacks.