My first day of work at a media house in San Francisco happened to be 9/11. I was nervous. I had just upended my comfortable Silicon Valley software job for the uncertain world of writing but had not expected quite such a baptism by fire. Pacific News Service was a rather maverick media operation tucked away in a grand but shabby building in downtown San Francisco. A Filipina nun worked the reception desk. The executive editor, a MacArthur genius, had lovebirds that perched on her shoulder, pooped on her black coat and fluttered around the office. Tattooed young people, some of them recently out of prison, attended editorial meetings alongside eminent retired professors. You could occasionally smell pot in the air after someone returned from a “smoke break”. It was a long way from the antiseptic cubicles, manicured money plants and pastel walls of Silicon Valley.
I had just walked into the office uncertainly when a small woman wearing a hat came bounding towards me. ““Sandip?” she squealed breathlessly as she enveloped me in her arms, hugging me tight and kissing me on both cheeks, while I stood utterly perplexed. She might even have called me a mensch, which I later learnt was her favourite Yiddish word for good person. At the time, I had no idea who she was. “I am Hilary,” she said. Hilary Abramson was the managing editor of the news service. She had been vacationing in New York City and New Jersey the week before. She was supposed to fly back to San Francisco that day. But she knew I was joining work and felt someone should be available to orient me since our executive editor was scheduled to be away. She said she pictured me walking in to my first day at work to discover a bird squawking near the editorial desk while a toddler chased a dog.
So at the last minute Hilary cut her vacation short and decided to leave New Jersey a day earlier, on 10 September. Alice, her best friend since kindergarten, with whom she was staying in New Jersey, was upset but Hilary insisted. If she had not changed that ticket, she would have been on United Airlines Flight 93, non-stop between Newark and San Francisco. That was one of the aeroplanes hijacked on 11 September. It went down in Pennsylvania. I should have kept that ticket and framed it, Hilary told me later.
At the time, the cliché was that the world would never be the same again. But the truth is we often cannot be affected by the deaths of thousands the way we can be affected by the death of one person. That loss is palpable, it haunts our dreams, leaves a scab that never goes away entirely. 9/11 had been something I had watched on television, a horror that unfolded against a cloudless blue September sky. When Hilary hugged me, it became real, something I could touch and feel.
Twenty years later, it’s hard to assess its legacy. As the US hurriedly withdrew from Afghanistan, the world watched in horror while desperate Afghans clinging to an aircraft plummeted to their deaths as the plane took off. It was an eerie throwback to 9/11, when men and women jumped to their deaths from their offices in the collapsing Twin Towers. Associated Press photographer Richard Drew took a famous picture at 9:41:15 am on 9/11 of a man falling from the North Tower. Don DeLillo wrote a novel called Falling Man. There was a documentary about the photograph. There was much debate about the ethics of publishing it, as well as about the man’s identity, all of it going to show how singular that moment felt in the midst of all the horror. Twenty years later, it feels less unique as the photograph, in a sense, repeats itself. Then they had been trying to get away from the aeroplanes bearing death and destruction. Now they were trying to get on board the aeroplanes to flee death and destruction on the ground. But in both cases the end result was the same—they fell to certain death.
The political legacy of 9/11 remains messy. The US blundered into a war in Iraq on a false pretext. It embarked half-heartedly on nation building in Afghanistan, while claiming it was doing no such thing. In 2001, the then president, George W. Bush, tried to draw a line in the sand saying, “You are either with us or against us in the fight against terror.” Twenty years later, those lines are blurred as the departing Americans hand over Kabul to the very Taliban they uprooted 20 years ago. Memes on social media mock the Americans, saying it took the US four presidents, thousands of lives, trillions of dollars and 20 years to replace the Taliban with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
If anything was truly shattered on 9/11, it was the sense of immunity and invincibility that America once felt, writer Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni told me on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. That still rings true today. The sense of superiority remains but not the sense of invincibility.
For South Asians in America, the effects of the fallout of 9/11 were immediate. “Flying while brown” became a thing. Hate crimes went up. The first victim of post-9/11 violence was a Sikh man named Balbir Singh Sodhi. My friend Inder, a Sikh man in California, said a classmate told his six-year-old nephew: “I don’t want to play with you any more. You are Indian.” Mom-and-pop Chinese restaurants started sticking American flags on the counter.
We have always tried to get a grip on overwhelming tragedy by fixating on identifying the “other” who could be the receptacle for our anger. Nineteen-year-old Mizgon Zahir used to come to our newsroom at the Pacific News Service. She had grown up in Hayward, California. 9/11 instantly made her the “other”, an Afghan, though she had never been to Afghanistan. She had wanted to launch a magazine, “Afghan Journal”, in August 2001. She said people asked if it was a magazine about dogs or shawls. After 9/11, she got the funding to launch it. But she would hide it when she rode public transport. She joked that her parents still did not allow her to stay out after 9 o’clock but she missed her first day of college because she was on a panel in Los Angeles talking about terrorism.
To this day, the effect of 9/11 can be felt each time we wind our way through airport security. It probably helped George W. Bush win a second term. But it was less singular than the US imagined. On another 11th September, in 1973, a military junta with American backing had toppled the socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile, an event the Argentine president described as a “fatality for the continent”. Writer Roger Crowley called the siege and fall of Constantinople in 1453 the 9/11 of the medieval world, whereby Christian Europe finally had to recognise Islam as a world power. I am still wary of saying 9/11 changed the world as we know it forever because forever is a long time. But this much I know. Every 11 September, no matter where we are, Hilary Abramson and I exchange an email commemorating “our” story. Neither of us knew then that the day would change our little world forever, binding us in a virtual hug. As Hilary once put it, for us it is not just a commemoration of death, but also an annual reminder to celebrate life.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.