I was in Philadelphia, enrolled in classes at Gratz College, on September 11, 2001. It was a gorgeous morning during the second week of the semester. I walked into the main lobby and was greeted by news, from the school's admissions director, that a plane had just crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center, 100 miles away in New York City. She told us to go to class and that she would let us know if she heard anything else. An hour later, our Hebrew class was interrupted and we were gathered into the main lobby of the building, where the president of the college told us what had happened, and instructed us to go home. At the urging of the Jewish Federation of Philadelphia, classes at all Jewish schools and colleges in the city were to be cancelled until further notice. Because the trains had been shut down for security reasons, I got a ride with a classmate. We made it to Temple University when traffic came to a complete standstill; apparently, everything else in Philadelphia was closing for the day too. I thanked my friend, got out of her car and walked the rest of the way back to my apartment near Rittenhouse Square.
Along the way, stores on the crowded streets had turned TV screens to the front windows and turned up the speakers so passersby could watch ongoing news coverage; people were crowded around the windows three and four deep. Busloads of schoolchildren in their new uniforms were being herded onto yellow buses to be taken home. People were rushing to and fro, having all been let out of work early and told to go home for the day. Everyone was hurried but exceedingly polite; every time I bumped into someone on a crowded sidewalk we both smiled a little at each other and murmured "sorry" or "excuse me". I stopped at a phone booth near the Free Library on JFK Boulevard and waited my turn in line so I could briefly call my father in Portland to tell him I was alright. An Episcopal church nearby had opened its massive red doors to anyone who needed a place to pray or just calm down. I ducked in for a few minutes and was grateful for the quiet. I continued on, having what turned out to be my requisite Scary Moment as I walked between the glass and steel towers of Liberty Centre, the financial center of the city. Traders from the Philadephia Stock Exchange were outside, pacing nervously in their two-toned trading floor jackets and puffing away on cigarettes. I tried not to let myself look up as I walked between the two towers but I couldn't help it, and after that my pace quickened nervously, all the way to Bainbridge Street and my apartment building. I got home around 1:30 pm, and listened to NPR for much of the rest of the day. Up to that point I had been numb, not quite understanding what had happened. Then I heard reports of taxi drivers in Damascus, Syria handing out sweets to children to celebrate the attacks. That was when I hung my head and sobbed, the full weight of the day's meaning finally hitting me.
"War" takes many forms.
I was reminded of this again when, several days later, I stood on a crowded street corner in Center City, waiting for a bus to take me to an evening lecture. Classes had resumed at Gratz and at other schools and although people were still in disbelief there was a definite air of slowly, tentatively trying to get on with life. As we waited for our respective buses, I noticed some hard-hatted construction workers on a lunch break nearby. I saw a taxicab slowly turn the corner, being driven by a Sikh who was easily identified through his open window by his brightly colored turban. Either not knowing much about Sikhs, or not caring, two of the construction workers began yelling and jeering at the cab driver, screaming at him to "go home to Saudi Arabia". I watched in horror as one threw a bottle at the side of the cab as it passed. The cab accelerated and sped away. I hid my face in my hands and tried not to let people see me cry. I did not feel strong enough to tell off the construction workers, and I felt ashamed of my fear.
I left the bus stop and walked home, skipping the lecture, and sat on the stoop in front of my apartment building with a piece of cold chicken and a bottle of beer, watching the quiet street in front of me and wondering if we would ever learn how to make peace with ourselves and with each other. I wondered what I was even doing in graduate school -- what a luxury it seemed, all of a sudden! -- and if my choices and actions would ever make a difference in the world around me.
In the ten years since the attacks of September 11, we have seen an outpouring of pain, love and support between neighbors and friends; a heightened emphasis on geopolitically-based fear by our media and politicians; an increase in our military aggression and a chipping away at our individual liberties (specifically, the individual's right to privacy); and for many, a gnawing feeling that even if we have been able to successfully prevent another such attack from happening, we have not made the world a more peaceful place in the passing decade. I fear that as a society, we have not learned very much -- certainly, not enough -- since that day; and I wonder what it would take for us to change from a competitive, war-obsessed culture into a cooperative and peace-seeking one.
As I prepare to begin the New Year of the Soul, less than three weeks from now, I wonder what will be asked of me in the coming months to make things better for those around me. I hope that I will recognize the answer when I hear it.