I was in New York on 9/11. On September 11, 2001, the World Trade Center collapsed in a heap of iron and cement in front of my eyes. Minutes before the towers crumbled, I saw desperate people jumping out of windows on the top floors to escape the flames that were devouring them. I can’t imagine what must have gone through their minds as they saw the sky as their only refuge. My brother and I stood on the fire escape of my parents’ apartment in an old brick building in the West Village watching in horror. Having heard the radio on his way to work reporting the first plane that had struck the towers, my brother was looking up at the buildings and walking to his office on Wall Street, when the second tower was hit. It was 9.03 am, 17 minutes between the first and the second strike. I’ll never forget his face when he ran back up the stairs and rushed onto the fire escape. The next two hours were a blur.
We were frantically trying to locate cousins and friends working in the building, or on their way to work in the trains that ran below them. But as I moved back and forth between looking at the towers burn before me and monitoring the TV that was on inside; watching the most hardened American news casters break down in their studios, and doing my own phone reports for the NDTV studios in Delhi whenever one could get through, I was acutely aware with each passing minute that the world was changing forever.
At around 11.30 am, well after the towers had come crashing down, a cousin we had been trying frantically to reach all morning came banging on the apartment door, covered from head to toe in ash and asbestos. He was commuting into the city where he teaches media and cultural studies, on the Path train from New Jersey—the station was in the basement of the twin towers complex.
Before his arrival, the street below had been a sea of people looking up at the towers, their screams mixed with those who were trapped inside to create a sound wave that travelled north from what we now call Ground Zero, into the rest of Manhattan. Once the skyline was altered, the city had emptied, it’s residents trying to make sense of what they had just seen, seeking comfort in the presence of strangers, gathered together at local neighbourhood bars, buzzing with music and activity the evening before, but funereal that morning.
As I was on the phone to my office in Delhi, still reeling with the events I had just witnessed, and trying to organize my next reporting move, it was once such place my brother and cousin walked into. Both obviously brown skinned South Asians, my cousin tall and bearded to boot, attracted attention as they entered. If silence could be amplified, that’s what happened when the two of them walked in, they said. I only have their word for it, but given the traumatic tales of racial profiling one heard in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, I have no reason to disbelieve them.
In the days that followed, the country shut down, US airports were closed for an entire week so no one could enter or leave the country. Local papers and news were full of stories of the number of cases of post traumatic stress disorder in New Yorkers who had watched the towers fall, people who found solace with strangers, or walked into hospital ERs asking for psychiatric help. All this quite apart from the asbestos poisoning that still continues to affect the health of so many who survived the attacks, and so many of the first responders to them- the firemen, paramedics and police.
The first few days were tense for everyone. South Asians and those from the Middle East felt it the most acutely. Scared Sikh taxi drivers ensured the stars and stripes of the American flag were on clear display in their rear window, along with information clarifying that Sikhs were not Muslim. All this, to ensure no one questions their loyalty to America, or confuses their religion.
Overwhelmed by the attacks, overwhelmed by the assignment I found in my hands, I walked from hospital to hospital looking for Indian American victims every day. The collage of faces- photographs of the missing- that stared at me from each turn, each traffic light, each patch of wall and each bus stop haunted my reports. Outside the Armory, where US government officials were collecting DNA samples from toothbrushes, hairbrushes, underwear- anything families could find that would help identify bits of bodies that were collected from the rubble of the World Trade Center; it was Indian and Pakistani diners that supplied the mile long lines of people with food and water as they waited they turn to go inside.
In spite of this, there were many incidents. Sikh men were heckled on the streets, in subways. But the ones that stand out most vividly - the killing of a Sikh in Mesa, Arizona; and an elderly Sikh gentleman beaten up by young boys with baseball bats in New York. I met him at the largest Gurudwara in New York’s Richmond Hill area, bruised purple and blue, helping young Sikh boys draw up posters saying they are proud to be American. And this wasn’t half of what America’s Muslim population went through in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.
9/11 not only brought America to its knees, but spawned a decade of suspicion and terror, fuelled by war and politics. With his message of “you’re either with us or against us” former President George W Bush stormed Afghanistan and tried to “smoke” terrorists out of their “caves.” Rising casualties in Afghanistan, and a massive backlash against US and NATO troops in the Af Pak region got Washington to divert public attention from Afghanistan to Iraq, in another misadventure that has cost many lives, American and Iraqi. As the war on terror pushed geographical boundaries, terror groups also spread their borders- from Iraq and Afghanistan into Pakistan. With safe havens and a Pakistan government willing to go only so far and no further to fight them, they have turned the Af Pak border region into the most dangerous place in the world. Its taken a decade of bloodshed, but as Pakistanis see their own struck down on a daily basis now, they are being left with no choice but to fall in step with the war on terror.
The current American President- Barack Obama- who’s win is the stuff history is made of, has found himself stuck in the same quagmire as his predecessor in spite of troop withdrawals from Iraq, and attempts to set a timeline for a security transition in Afghanistan. His promise of hope and change won him a Nobel peace prize in his first year as president. He’s reached out to the Muslim world and brought back US troops from Iraq. But almost at the end of his first term it seems, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Just as it was his predecessor’s, winning the war on terror continues to be his biggest challenge. 10 years too late, Osama Bin Laden’s killing by US Special Forces inside Afghanistan now seems like just a battle victory in the long war against terror, even if it provides some justice for those who were killed, and some closure for those who survived.
And writing about all this 10 years on has made me realize the memories of those days will always be fresh. 9/11 wasn’t the first time I was exposed as a journalist to violence and terror, whether it was of war or bombs, at home in India or in other parts of the world. But all the blood and mayhem in the years before it paled in comparison to what I saw unfold in New York that crisp, clear September morning that shook the world.
(Writer is Foreign Affairs Editor, NDTV)