Twenty Years

Political Violence (part 1)

It took place in an off-the-beaten path classroom, not a modern lecture hall. We were maybe 30 students, and the few times we had met before – maybe it was two? Three? – we had already covered some ‘basics’: what peacebuilding is, Rwanda, a bit of Bosnia.

When I registered for it in late August 2001, the class was called Political Violence.

On September 12, we were back in our seats, dumbstruck. Many of us had shown up. There wasn’t much else to do in upstate New York except obsess over the news and wonder when the bridges would reopen to Staten Island and if I’d be able to get home, reunited with family over Rosh Hashana the next week.

Going forward, we would talk about terrorism and war. ‘Political Violence’ instantly sounded quaint; it was, and really always had been, a softer way of describing something anyone is capable of. Now, we were going to discuss terrorism, what that means, what it does not mean, who exactly carries this out, the Middle East.

I had signed up for the class to dip my toe in the waters of Political Science; I was considering doubling up with my obvious choice of English to turn that into a journalism career. I doubled, and tripled – International Relations joined the roster a little later on after spending a semester in England. I had ditched my plan of Psychology; I felt I needed to do something, and becoming more exposed to global ideas and thinking seemed like the thing to do. Soon, America was at war in Afghanistan to smoke out the terrorists, the intifada was raging, and all I could think of was: I need to do something. What I did was dive deeper into political science, energize an empire of Israel Action Committee, and, for a very short period, entertain the idea of submitting the forms the recruiters had handed me over a campus table, draped in the logo of the US Marines.  

By the end of Fall semester, our professor had laid plans for a new class to take place. ‘Political Violence’ was shed like a snakeskin; the mega-lecture of Spring 2002 would be called Terrorism and War. The class was to take place in one of the university’s biggest lecture halls. A handful of us were accepted as teaching assistants – brown, white, Jewish, Muslim, Christian. The first day of class, the lecture hall was overflowing with 400 people – even more had tried to register, there were waiting lists. 

We were all desperate to talk. 

Preparing for the first lecture, our team sat around and debated showing footage of the towers falling. Was it too soon? We decided to show it, but to give a stark warning before. Back then ‘trigger warning’ wasn’t everyday lingo, and 18-21 year olds lined up in spite of it, pus still oozing from our wounds. 

2001-2002 was a time when everything mattered, and choices were tiny but together impacted a lot. The backdrop to all of it was trajectory-altering for so many of us. New army recruits. New firefighters. New career paths. New insecurities. 

New vocabulary we were adopting; new concepts. 

The Axis of Evil was pronounced. The War on Terror was declared. 

Thousands of miles away, buses were being blown up in Jerusalem, and I was realizing there was nowhere else I’d rather be.

My impressionable age then still makes me wonder. If I had been only a few years younger, in high school. If I had been a few years older, already working a job and paying rent, likely somewhere in NYC. 

But no, I was at an age where I had set out to be independent for the first time. Experiencing personal freedom for the first time. Making choices every day about the adult I’d shape myself into. 

The day before America absorbed the impact of its biggest man-made earthquake, I had turned 19.

Terrorism & War (part 2)

I was lonely in England, but I had done the right thing. I had come on a dare; could I rip myself away from my every day in Binghamton, New York, and jump into the deep end of a tiny town in the middle of a nowhere filled with sheep paddocks and empty cobblestoned roads?

Could I see myself building a more colorful life outside of the United States?

In my tiny dorm room in Lancaster, I spent a lot of time refreshing the news. Now we were talking about invading Iraq, and Tony Blair was gearing up as co-pilot. 

It felt surreal; as a weird, morbid nine-year-old I had been obsessed with Saddam Hussein and assumed he was headed straight to my doorstep. I didn’t even know he was already at Tel Aviv’s. But I knew he was bad. 

Twelve years later, I was old enough to understand that in January of 2003 this was a messy decision, and naïve enough to think that maybe the people in charge know what they’re doing. Even if an amateur political science major knew all roads didn’t point to the country we were talking about bombing. 

I remember how my heart sank when I refreshed the page and saw that we had, indeed, declared war on Iraq.

A few months later, backpacking through Europe, I was advised to say I was Canadian. Rainbow Pace flags hung over Italian balconies; I bought one because I, of course, agreed. But the nuance over what exactly I agreed with wasn’t clear to me. I was always worried about war, and by now, terrorism. I understood the sentiment behind the Blair and Bush effigies and I understood the Middle East is complex and no one actually wanted America there.

But what was also complex was the feeling that Israel needed to be protected. And the deconstruction of the lifelong branding of the US as almost-always the hero. And the confusion over why we had gone into Iraq and not Syria, or Iran.

And the fact that growing up seemed to teach us to trust our leaders and yet, as a budding adult, I no longer was clear on who is trustworthy anymore.

Twenty Years (part 3)

I guess for a lot of us around my age, pulling out of Afghanistan makes sense but the shock of how poorly it has gone down dug up a lot of memories from our early adult lives. Twenty years ago, we set out to navigate the world and lay the foundation of our futures. The trajectory of four airplanes actually changed the course of our own, for many of us. People enlisted. People made career decisions. Or, more simply, people’s worldview were forever altered – new vocabulary, a new perspective on flags and other symbols, fresh areas of world maps to understand, non-stop cable news talking points infiltrating our minds.

I guess it’s no surprise that when I saw the images coming out of Afghanistan the day the US started pulling out, I cried – and was dumbstruck at how much I was feeling. A lot of other images from the news – especially in the last two, four, six years – have also been complete punches to the face.

I guess this was different because half my life has been tied up in it, even if I had gone days, weeks, months, years without actively thinking about Afghanistan or September 11th. For the whole country, the kids, the adults, the cable news channels, the textbooks, reality changed on September 11, 2001. The conversation changed. Words’ meanings changed. The discourse. The way we discourse. We were flung into a new future, knee-jerked, whiplashed. Our country and culture were thrown into a new trajectory. Probably we were always on it, and this was but one possible catalyst in the multiverse of possibilities.

The War on Terror has been inside the building.

And look at us now.

In how many ways have we failed? Is it not about failure? Is every day a new test, whether it follows the destruction of a symbol of your ‘great nation’ or not?

I know that not everything about today’s America is because of what happened twenty years ago. That would be simplistic, and too much of how we think as Americans today is simplistic.

But every day, before and after September 11, 2001, we make choices. From the president to the high school graduate, hit in the face with freedom to fail every day. America is not a place of children; it’s very much a place where adults are strapped with the ability to make choices every second we’re awake. Isn’t that freedom? Do we choose to see it that way? Do we choose to think for ourselves? Or be bound to our boxes, anchored to our anger, molded by our mobs, subscribed to simplification, preoccupied with pre-packaged thought.

Crying over Afghanistan is crying over how much our choices can cause real hope, real despair. How power is distributed unevenly, and sometimes we fail at being powerful so spectacularly.

Crying over Afghanistan is realizing we’re not all seeing the act of making choices in the same way, and the very idea of what it means to be free – free thinkers, free decision makers, free actors – has been swallowed up by politicization, radicalization, laziness.

Crying over Afghanistan is realizing half of my life has been spent in one kind of storybook, and half of my life in another.

Crying over Afghanistan is wondering… if we are still making such poor choices twenty years later, what the hell comes next?

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