Ground Zero and the Birth of the Wall

Ground Zero and the Birth of the Wall

The 9/11 first responders are among the greatest moral heroes of recent history. In this divided moment, looking to their example might shed light on the dilemmas ahead of us. If the American culture war is a battle over the soul of our nation, we should do what anyone does when lost in battle: look to the bravest few and follow their lead.  


The Wall 

In my first-year teaching, one of my fifth-grade students made a joke about her friend at recess. She said that he, “fell faster than the two towers.” We were in New York. I was pissed. I scolded her sternly before a more experienced teacher corrected my tone. What the student said was horrible, sure, but it was because she didn’t understand what she was saying. She was born in post-9/11 America. She could invoke the language of Terror because she didn’t yet understand the depth of tragedy of her words. But America is not this child. We know tragedy. I think, maybe, we’ve just forgotten. 

As rhetoric about the border wall escalates, the president and vice president have increasingly referred to Middle and South American refugees as terrorists. I have questions. There is the question of the effect of immigrants on the economy. Won’t they harm our growth? Aren’t they stealing our resources? Well, no. There is an upfront cost, but immigrants tend to help economies in the long run. But this is not a question of Terrorism.

There is the cultural question of the promise of the melting pot being finally made real. White Americans will likely become a minority within the next 50-100 years. Might this wall be about the shifting tides of whiteness and power? Does demographic change threaten the concept of what “an American” is? Well, yes, actually. But, only if your concept of American is intrinsically white. But this too is not Terrorism.

There is also the question of scapegoating. There still exists a belief that the rising tide lifts all boats, but the reason Trump was even elected, and Bernie was even considered was because the cry of populism is being heard round the nation. We haven’t had wealth inequality so high since before the great depression. Poor Americans are in bad shape. Rural poor America was mad at the system, justifiably. Urban poor America was mad at the system, justifiably. Economic exploitation should have been the one force that united the anti-establishment right and the anti-establishment left. But it didn’t, and it doesn’t, because, as in all internal battles over our own souls, half of us is convinced the problem is outside ourselves instead of within. When individual people don’t want to acknowledge their flaws, they lash out. This sometimes works – in the short term. Our administration is blaming immigrants for the problems of our country and it is working to slough off accountability. He was supposed to fix the broken system. Now instead, of draining the swamp he’s trying to convince us the water is flowing in from the outside. 

But, therein lies the stroke of genius of our administration’s shift in rhetoric. To stop crime, we need everyday measures, nothing drastic, nothing unconstitutional. But to stop Terror, nearly anything is allowed. Even tear gas in the lungs of kids is better than Terror. 

An Introduction to Tragedy             

I have been sitting on versions of this piece for three years. Each year, on Memorial Day, I go back to the ground zero memorial, revisit these words, edit them, and - ultimately - abandon them for utter lack. How can you even talk about a tragedy like this? Should you even try? How can words mean anything in the face of a loss that shook us to our core? How can words address the fear we walked away with? The fear we carry with us still.

I don’t think they can, and so I go to the 9/11 memorial every year in part because I can’t find a way to express what I feel about this attack. How it shaped us. 

Beyond the images of mechanical destruction and the bodily impact, I am always struck by the photographs of New York’s streets brought to a shocked standstill. One of the busiest, grumpiest, toughest populations we have standing in shock. Their faces, their posture, and their hearts stopped as they looked on in the kind of fearful helpless disbelief that only tragedy can draw from us. Please, God, let this be a dream.  

Beyond the heroism of the first responders, beyond the chaos of a thousand planes forced to land within minutes, beyond the questioning of our own safety, the images of them capture a part of how many of us were feeling that day. In fact, they capture part of how we always feel in the face of the reality of tragedy. Yes, we must take precaution. Yes, we must rush to action. Yes, we even need to be heroic. All of these actions are required of us, and when they are done heroically they should be celebrated. But in the face of true loss there is a part of us that can only stand in shocked disbelief. 

I once read a correspondence of letters between a woman who had lost her daughter and an advice columnist.[1]Her friends had been telling her it was time to move on and get over it. The columnist rightly said her friends were utterly full of shit. You don’t “get over it.” It’s not a break up where you can find a better lover. It’s not a broken bone that can heal back stronger. It’s a tragedy. 

When our children die, it’s a tragedy. When we are attacked like we were, it’s a tragedy. We should not expect ourselves to “get over it.” It is wiser, I think, to recognize that, for everyone involved, there will always be a corner of our hearts standing in shock on the sidewalk. Part of us will always be paralyzed, helpless to understand, helpless to process, and helpless to act. This isn’t a shortcoming of our personalities; it is the surest confirmation of our humanity. In my time in New York, I’ve met people who understand this, and I’ve met people who do not. Two of their stories I’ve been trying to write about for three years. I think today, I finally have the words.  

Two Widows; Two Sons Lost 

There are people you meet who make you feel like the most important person in the world. When you talk to them, their eyes lock on you. They make you comfortable. They ask you questions. They radiate care for you in such a way that you forget the rest of the world. Emma from Queens is one of these people. We’ll call her Emma, at least. She lost her husband far too soon, and within a few years she lost her son. His death rocked our world. It would have been sad whoever it was, but he was one of the best among us. Whether you were a prep school jock or an inner-city struggling math student, Alex talked to you like you mattered.

When Alex died, Emma’s eyes were never the same. She was still herself. She still smiled. She still held onto part of that joy that defined her, but there was a sadness about her that I can describe no other way except to say it reminds me of the eyes of New Yorkers on the streets. Eyes that say, “This is reality now. This is never changing. Ultimately, there is nothing to be done about this.”

I’ll never forget the first time I saw Emma in church after her loss. I don’t know what exactly I was expecting, but even with the heaviness of sadness in her eyes she still asked about my life. She still wanted to know what I was up to. She still made me feel like I mattered. I hadn’t lost as much as she had. But I was still worth her time, attention, and care.

Years before, another death shook us. Like Emma’s son, he wasn't a close friend of mine, but someone I saw around teaching circles in Brooklyn. We’ll call him Carl. We lost him too soon too. Although I didn’t know him well, he was an amicable sort of soul. His glowing personality and smile brought that kind of feel good warmth that only empathy can draw from us.  Please, God, let this never stop.

But it did stop. Slowly and over years. His illness was more subtle. I watched him thin out progressively. He grew more and more detached, lethargic, and even jaded. Until one day when I stopped seeing him around. I asked. He had died.

A few months later, I went to visit his mother. L-train. DeKalb stop. It turns out, his mother was superficially similar to Emma. She no longer had a husband, and she also had lost her son too soon. But the similarities stop there; how Amanda reacted was so radically different.  As soon as I walked into her apartment I witnessed something I will never forget. 

Amanda was more or less a kind host to me. She offered a drink. She even gave me some of Carl’s old books. In bad health, I helped her move around a few boxes and some sodas. Fine. But she was having computer trouble and while our conversation continued, a technician she had been on the phone with called back and started remote accessing her computer. A brown accent on the phone. The tone shifted. Amanda left behind friendly host and turned instantly on the stranger on the phone in a fit of vitriol I’ve never witnessed since.

I’ve seen violence first hand. I’ve seen people lash out in anger in a momentary passionate loss of control. It is disturbing, and I don’t condone it, but in a way, it is understandable. When someone is attacking you, we have a natural tendency to respond. Fight or die. It is for this reason we find it so utterly reasonable to kill Bin Laden, to hunt down the people who caused us pain. In George Bush’s impromptu speech at ground zero, he even said this. “[T]he people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.” A promise of retribution. He was greeted by cheers. Chants of “U.S.A! U.S.A!”[2] – With the benefit of hindsight, it’s hard not to see this call to violence as the inception of the Nationalism we are grappling with today.

It’s difficult to express, but what Amanda was doing felt worse. At least in a passionate lashing out, the emotion cools when the perceived threat ends. The torture eventually stops. But her anger was consistent. She threw insults at this stranger whose only crime was being pulled into her orbit by chance. While he was on speakerphone, she turned to me and insulted his capacity in a way that he clearly could hear. I said nothing. As the tense moments passed, it became clear to me that she was not reacting to him, not defending herself, not even defending her computer. She was taking out the pain of the loss of her son on him.

As soon as I realized this, all I could think was that he didn’t deserve this. Like the refugees, knocking on our door, he didn’t cause her tragedy. And like the children inhaling tear gas, he was helpless to stop her. That was half the pain of it, his powerlessness. Any normal human would react to being verbally lashed. But, by mere accident of social circumstance, he was powerless to defend himself.  

Morality can be complex. But here is a simple truth: there exists no world in which it is morally acceptable for the powerful to lash out against the weak just because the powerful are in pain. I know this deep in my guts, not by analysis, but because it is something Emma would never have done. 

Their grief is bigger than an essay, but the two widows serve as examples of two reactions to tragedy, two ways to bear pain. I fear America is taking Amanda’s path. When I see images of New Yorkers embracing strangers, I am revitalized with hope that Emma’s empathy is not beyond our reach. But when I hear the sadistic glee expressed at the pain of refugees violently turned away, I fear we are already Amanda.

When Grief Becomes War             

There is a three-year-old question I could not answer, a question that brings me shame to even think as I write these words. It has kept me boarding the train to the 9/11 memorial all these years. One I challenge you to answer, now, if you can. “Who are we fighting?” Or, less poetically, “Who actually are we are war with? What countries are our troops currently fighting in?”

It was the realization that I did not instantly know the answer to this question that gave me pause. And it was realizing that no matter how hard I thought about it that I couldn’t recall that paralyzed me in my steps and brought me to tears. How could I not know? I watch the news. I keep up with things. I’m awake. We left Iraq right? Or did we leave Afghanistan? We left one for sure. But did we go back? Are we going to Syria? To Yemen? Do you know? Do you actually?

This is an easily googleable question, but the fact that we even need to look should give our collective conscience pause. 

The answer may actually be more complex than a simple list. For we may occupy any nation because we are not at war with any nation. In a neo-colonial feat of irony, while we fight internally about who is allowed into our border, we allow ourselves to cross any border because the war on terror is a war without borders. The answer happens to be seven. Pending removing troops from Syria, Under Bush, through Obama, and into Trump’s presidency we currently have troops stationed in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and Niger.[3]

Niger and Somalia were real surprises to me. They’re in Africa. Who in Niger attacked us on 9/11? Who in Yemen? When did we even go to Africa? How did I miss that? Wasn’t I awake? But like a twisted militaristic game of telephone, the language has changed, bit by bit. “Get back at those who attacked us on 9/11” has become “stop Al-Qaida” has become “stop ISIL” has become “stop ISIS” has become “Stop Terror.” Has become…apparently… “protect our borders.”

But what is Terror? How will we know when we’ve stopped Terror? Who will sign the papers when Terror concedes?   We cannot expect a concession from Terror any more than one can expect the death of tragedy. 

Part of me wants to think that there are good arguments for our military presence in Africa. That behind closed doors perhaps it really is clear that Terror really is in Somalia. Perhaps in the backrooms of the war machine, intelligence pours in that us mere mortal citizens ought never know. Perhaps there are reasons to point our boots and drones, legitimately, toward Somalia, toward Niger. Perhaps we civilians just can’t see the clear thread that ties Niger to the wreckage at the Pentagon, to flight 93, to the Twin Towers. 

But just as backroom political calculators know that the American population neither knows nor cares what countries we’re currently fighting in, they know something else: whether we the people can see the reasons why we’re in Niger is of no consequence. The executive branch controls the war now, not congress. They, legally speaking, are under no obligations to ask permission. The Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) says “the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those … he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks.” – He determines – It is these words “He determines” that give me chills as I hear the president call South and Central American refugees “terrorists.” 

There’s important legal language in the AUMF, congress’s emotionally laden bipartisan reaction to 9/11. NPR’s Radiolab does an excellent job putting the core 60 words into relief and showing how, if they ever were appropriate, their scope and power is too far reaching and reactive. This law needs to be changed immediately. Had King lived to this day, based on his views on the Vietnam war, I have no doubt he’d have opposed such an unaccountable unilateral militarization of the executive branch. But I’m not here writing to you about the geopolitics of terror, about congress, about the law. 

I’m here because I visited Amanda.  I’m here because I’ve seen what happens when grief, turn by bitterness into anger, is directed at the world’s defenseless weak. It was so emotionally, morally obvious watching her berate him – so clear she had no right to refuse to see his humanity. But her pain blinded her to his. All she saw was her own anger, and him a weak place to direct it. All she knew was the hole in her spirit. Deep enough, she thought, that no one else could ever feel her pain. 

Of course, when we’re in pain we think no one can understand. It’s natural. But if the pain we feel is terror, if the pain we feel is fear. If we are reeling from feeling that we are no longer safe in our own homes, if we are living in fear that our places of work, recreation, and worship could be taken from us in an instant then there is no one in the world who understands this better than refugees. 

            We lost two towers; they lost everything. 

Where Do We Go From Here? 

I don’t say this to be pithy or dismissive. Those who had family killed in the towers lost everything. They as individuals felt and feel what our nation felt as a collective. I say this, in part, because it is what Emma taught me. And because it is a collective truth we fail to recognize. America’s pain is real. America’s pain deserves to be felt. America’s pain cannot be ignored or silenced or forgotten. But ours is not the only pain. And our pain is never an excuse to hurt the most vulnerable.

Or rather, I should be more specific. At the risk of alienating the moral idealists, there may be circumstances in which our pain gives us the right to attack, to lash out. We can defend ourselves. It is our right, and perhaps our obligation to assert, as King said, our own “somebodyness.” But there is a very specific constraint on this right. It is the constraint that separates heroes from monsters. If we are ever allowed to lash out in self-defense, we can’t just fire our arrows at whoever happens to be in our orbit. If self-defense is allowed, it is only allowed against those who are actively hurting us or who imminently will. 

So even if we had a right to strike back against Al Quaida, a right to attack which somehow transmuted into a right to attack ISIL, transformed to aid Saudi Arabia’s proxy war in Yemen, a right which granted us the legal framework to send drones dropping bombs wherever our hit list directs us, this right does not extend – we simply cannot allow this right to extend– to harming South and Central American refugees. 

It may strike you as strange that I associate our treatment of refugees with our legal powers to fight terror. Perhaps you find the connection weak. Fearing brown Muslims in far off deserts simply doesn’t translate to fearing refugees. There’s no logic connecting conflicts in South America to 9/11. If you say this, I agree, but our government does not. And it is their opinion that matters, not ours.

To explain by analogy, there is a strange legal apparatus around what is “classified.” Essentially it is up to the will of the president. You may remember that snafu with Trump telling some Russians some things he was nominally not allowed to since they were classified. But when the dust cleared (and the news cycle moved on), the president’s whims determine what classification is.[4] By speaking the information to a foreign power, they become declassified. 

In the domain of secrecy, the assessment of the executive branch is the only necessary authority. After 9/11, legally speaking, so too with terrorism. This may sound insane, but it is on the mouths of our leaders. On November 8th, The New York Times reported Trump’s claim to be able to limit the rights of refugees to seek asylum.[5]In the name of fighting terror for national security, he may actually be able to do this. Pence backed up this claim. Unknown Middle Easterners must be among those in the caravan. It’s “inconceivable” that there aren’t any.[6]Analogous to secrecy, there is a frightening consequence of the AUMF. If Trump decides Mexicans are terrorists, they simply are. 

The reins of power in the war on terror are in the hands of The Executive now. Not congress. Not us. We passed this law in one of our moments of tragedy, a moment of pain. In all likelihood it is the moral duty of our new house and senate to revoke the AUMF, to change the laws we wrote with wringing hands and regain a modicum of moral decency in these tense times. 

But I don’t go to the 9/11 memorial every year to think on policy reform. I don’t walk the grounds around the Two Towers’ memorial scars to think about checks and balances. I go because it was a tragedy. I go because, increasingly, I think it’s the day we lost our soul.  

Home Address: Ground Zero

If this were a play, we might say that it is a “great irony” that 9/11, our most recent attack, has closed us off to the world. Isn’t it “curious” that the one event that could have helped protagonist America build empathy for refugees is, in a twist of fate, the event that caused us to fear them most?

If this were a statistics class, we might also find it “interesting” that 9/11 killed 3,000, but we have killed over 10,000 each year since then with our own guns (The average pushes 15,000 depending on how you count). Being conservative with numbers, that’s three 9/11s per year we inflict on ourselves, at minimum. And we fear the outsider will hurt us? As Pavlov’s dog salivates at the ding of a bell, feed us enough anecdotal xenophobic fear mongering and we will shout “terror” at any brown face. Shoot it with tear gas - or bullets. 

But 3000 “regular” gun deaths are not like 3000 deaths at the two towers, you may say. I actually agree, even from this callous numerical perspective, but there is nuance in their similarity. There are two perspectives we must learn to occupy. We may not hold them both at once, but, like the optical illusions we see, we can alternate between the two to see the ground truth is bigger than each. We are a single nation, but we are each of us individuals. In this frame, 9/11 is to the nation what a “regular” gun death is to any individual family, or community.

For the children watching their friends die in terror, desperately trying to block bullets with backpacks, Parkland is 9/11. For the mothers and wives and daughters and brothers of black men killed by police, a routine traffic stop gone wrong is 9/11. For the Jewish man whose son is killed, Overland Park is 9/11. And, yes too, for the refugee whose home is decimated, whose daughter and wife are killed and is forced to flee a war zone, every day is 9/11. Ground Zero is his home address. 

Tragedy is tragedy is tragedy is tragedy. There is not young tragedy. There is not white tragedy. There is not American tragedy. There is not refugee tragedy. There is only tragedy. Nothing unites us more than pain, if we let ourselves feel it together. Or rather, nothing can unite us more than pain if we choose compassion and outward focus as Emma does, but, if we choose bitterness, as Amanda’s life is testament, nothing can divide us faster. 

This is so common it has a name. In childhood, powerful kids taking out the pain of their emotional losses on weaker kids is called “bullying.” In the context of adulthood, “bullying” does not feel appropriate. Through its overuse, this word has become sentimental and anemic.[7] It is better to say that when the powerful harm the weak and onlookers do nothing that it is a moral emergency. Kids in cages is a moral emergency. Tear gas at the border is a moral emergency. Refugee children dying in our custody when we have the means to protect them is a moral emergency.

This leaves us with an important question. We understand what to do in physical emergencies, but what you do in a moral emergency?

We should learn, I think, from the example of the ones who were heroes in that great physical emergency. How can we emulate the police and firefighters on 9/11 who ran towards the danger and not away? How can we imitate the soldiers who everyday put themselves in harm’s way to save the innocent? They, as individuals, risked their own safety to help those in need. In contrast to the moral emergency of using their power to harm the weak, they turned the power of their lives and bodies into a shield for those who needed it. If they represent the best of our nation, can we not aspire that our nation itself becomes like them? 

What nation-level acts count as analogous heroism? Certainly not throwing tear gas at children. Certainly not taking our pain out on the immigrant whose broken English obscures his humanity. Certainly not letting children die in cages of our own construction. The stakes of the border wall debate are clear enough. On the broadest levels, we are asking, “Who deserves to be an American?” or, “How can we protect what we are?” or even, “What does it mean to be an American?”

If we are to model ourselves after our heroes and not our demons, the most American thing we can do is to find the national equivalent of rushing into the collapsing building ourselves.

That is the America I hope we can have the courage to become. Focusing on those who knock on our door will not take away the pain of our own loss, but like Emma in the church, it can redirect the pain toward the development of a productive community instead of the bitter resentment that fractures our National spirit. It can help our nation give to those who need us just as much as we needed the first responders who, more heroically than most of us can muster, put their lives on the line for those proverbial people, “others.”


Please consider donating to these funds that help refugees in the U.S. and abroad.

United Nations Refugee Fund - https://give.unrefugees.org/

World Vision Refugee Crisis Fund - https://donate.worldvision.org/give/refugee-crisis-fund

San Antonio Center for Refugee Services - https://www.facebook.com/centerefugeeservices/

9/11 First Responders Charity - https://www.bustle.com/p/how-to-donate-to-911-charities-because-they-still-need-your-help-today-2306151

If you do, do tweet to me about it.

***The original post from December 2018 has been edited to fix a few minor usage errors and was reposted as published under 1/1/19 but otherwise appears in its original form.

[1]Cheryl Strayed, Tiny Beautiful Things

[2]http://www.nbclearn.com/portal/site/k-12/flatview?cuecard=248

[3]https://news.vice.com/en_us/article/a3ywd5/white-house-acknowledges-the-us-is-at-war-in-seven-countries

[4]https://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2017/may/16/james-risch/does-president-have-ability-declassify-anything-an/

[5]https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/08/us/politics/trump-asylum-seekers-executive-order.html

[6]https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/politics/pence-claims-its-inconceivable-there-arent-middle-easterners-in-caravan/ar-BBONjIH

[7]King, “Where Do We Go From Here” 1967

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