On Living in Wartime

September 9, 2011

The simple truth is

That WWIII started

9/11/2001

 – Elfie S. Raymond

It was a bright and sunny Tuesday morning, and I was still lazing around in bed, taking in the late-summer warmth. I was eighteen years old and had just started my freshman year at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, NY, just a forty-minute train ride away from Manhattan. I was filled with excitement, having met a group of formidably intelligent first-year students and registered for classes I’d never dreamed of taking in high school, like Surrealist Poetry and Anthropology of Religion. I was filled with anticipation; cool things were going to be happening this year.Then, the call came. It was my mother, and her voice was panicked.

“Jeannine, Jeannine, a plane just crashed into the World Trade Center!” she cried.

I did not panic. In fact, I did not react at all. A plane had flown into the World Trade Center. Okay. The idea that thousands of people- or even one person- had died due to this event somehow escaped me.

“Okay, well, it must have been some pilot error, right? Or-”

“You don’t understand. A plane has crashed into the building. There’s going to be a war…”

And then, the phone went dead. I tried calling back, but I couldn’t get through.

It was then that I started to wake up. I threw on some clothes and shoes and ran out from my dorm from the main administrative building where Geraldine, the quiet white-haired woman who staffed the desk, was sitting with a glum expression on her face. She merely pointed me in the direction of the television, where already a small group had gathered. I stared blankly at the screen, unable to comprehend the images that flashed before me. Another plane hitting the second tower. Both buildings filled with smoke. Panicked reporters describing the scene behind them, then shouting, “I’m getting out of here” and running away as wind blew rubble toward the camera. And- this was the worst…People the size of ants falling down from the highest windows of the building. Preferring to be smashed to the ground than burned alive.

This could not be happening. All right, maybe it could happen in some of the far-off places I’d read about in my high school history books, but not in the United States, just a short train ride away from where I was standing. This was the kind of thing that only happens to other people. Right?

I don’t recall much of what went on at Sarah Lawrence that day. Classes were cancelled, of course. The administration had scheduled some big event- I don’t remember what; it involved outside visitors rather than students – and there were plenty of snacks set out on long tables covered with fancy white cloths. When we got tired of watching the minute-by-minute coverage of the “Attack on America” we stepped outside and sat on the lawn, slowly eating this food without tasting it. There was an eerie silence over the campus, and what struck me as most bitterly ironic was the brilliant blueness of the sky- really it was too blue, chemical-blue, special-effect-in-the-movie blue. I just couldn’t believe that only a few miles south of where I now sat, hundreds of not thousands of people were being burned alive. And there was nothing that I could do about it.

I don’t remember much else from that day. At some point I went to the library and started sending emails (I’d only just set up my first email account and learned how to use it one week prior) to everyone I knew – my few friends whose email addresses I knew, my wonderful high school guidance counsellor, who’d urged me to write to her once I’d started school. “Are you all right?” I asked them, even though none of them lived in New York. It didn’t matter. This was an event that affected all of us.

Like so many others I was struck by the New York City mayor’s strength and courage in this terrible moment. Like so many others I was disappointed by our president’s angry, vengeful promise to “hunt down” the people responsible. There were few words of consolation for this violent act. Only the promise of more violence. I remember feeling queasy in subsequent days and weeks as I observed the subsequent changes- the Patriot Act, the formation of the Department of Homeland Security, the plans for a war in Afghanistan. My mind was torn. I just could not believe it–Our country was at war? It was a reality that I just didn’t want to accept. A few weeks later, I found myself joining a group of Sarah Lawrence students and boarding a bus to Washington, DC, a city I’d only visited once before on my eighth grade class trip. But as I listened to my fellow protesters’ chants of “War is not the answer” and observed their “Down with Bush” signs, I felt that everyone was oversimplifying an issue that was too complex for any of us hippie college freshmen to understand. Of course I didn’t want a war. Just because three thousand innocent people had died in New York, why should more innocent people have to die in Afghanistan? At the same time…We could not just sit back and do nothing. We had been attacked by people who had reduced their understanding of the world to ideology and symbol; we could not leave them space to do it again. Was there any way to confront the people who had done us this harm and resolve this conflict without resorting to a simple “eye for an eye” solution? I could not think of an answer. Ten years have gone by, and I still can’t think of a satisfactory answer.

I remember being shocked in high school European history classes as we learned about the Thirty Years War and the Hundred Years War. I could not understand how any war could last that long. Then again, in more recent times Vietnam lasted twenty years. Now, the War on Terror has lasted ten, with no signs of any resolution in the foreseeable future.

Of course, unlike soldiers and civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, it has been fairly easy for me as an American to lose sight to the reality that the past ten years have been fraught with war. My life has progressed fairly easily: I graduated from Sarah Lawrence, spent the next few years travelling and working abroad, and then started a graduate degree. Over time, I stopped paying attention to the increasing death toll.

I think that one of the main reasons why my attention has wandered is the basic human weakness which leads us to become preoccupied only with people with whom they interact on a day-to-day basis. It’s hard to relate to the violence taking place on the other side of the world on an emotional level. I find myself especially vulnerable to this failing, until I remember that, despite all the money invested in American security, I am not safe. This really is the World War III, and the other problems which the world is facing – economic crisis, environmental problems, depletion of resources – are only making it worse.

I do not say this to instill fear, only to remind myself and others of the capacity for violence which lies in each one of us. Ten years after 9/11, what sort of progress are we making toward peace? Have we started treating people any better? Are we coming any closer to getting past our racial, cultural and ideological differences and respecting people for who they are?

We are living in wartime. And while I still believe that peace really is possible, I also know that we are going to have to wait quite some time before we learn from our mistakes and work to bring that peace about.

Note: this piece was originally published by www.lifeintheusa.com, a website for immigrants and Americans.

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