Friday, September 9, 2011

Reflection on 9/11

I wasn't there.
I don't know anyone who was killed in the planes, towers, or Pentagon on that day.
In the ten years since, I've worked with people who were. Men and women who either ran out of the buildings on auto-pilot or ran into them to find survivors or remains. And families left behind. Unlike the simplistic narrative on the news, they don't all have a common thread except that day.
Each grief is different. Each loss is different. Everyone processes the loss differently.
For many survivors, life ended that day. Faith ended that day. God died that day.
For others, survival was proof of God, of faith, of prayer.
For me, Death revealed itself in pure form-- indifferent, random, brutal.
As the days, months, and years since then progressed, our nation began to tell a story of how to process grief. I didn't like the story. At first, the story was justice; punish those who carried out the attacks. Fair enough, I guess.
Then the story changed. Punish anyone thinking about an attack. So, to arms against Iraq.

But you can't heal grief by inflicting grief. And we inflicted so much grief- on those that were killed, those who killed, the wounded, the widowed, orphaned, those who experienced deployment as burdens as life unfolded indifferent, random, brutal. Those whose youths were lost by strapping on a suicide vest or filling the void of a lost parent with self-destruction.

I wasn't in New York, Washington, or Pennsylvania on 9/11. I didn't go to Afghanistan, Iraq, or a dozen other secret wars since 9/11. My family history has its own tragedy.

In 1947, the South Asian sub-continent "won" its freedom from the British Empire. As part of the political maneuvering of this new-found liberation, two countries would be carved from one. Muslims would find safety in Pakistan, Hindus, Sikhs, and other groups in India. An arbitrary border was drawn. At the time, my mother was a child in a town called Pind Dadhan Khan. In this town, like hundreds of others in Punjab, Hindus would invite Muslim neighbors for Diwali celebrations and Muslims would invite Hindu neighbors for Eid feasts. But it wound up on the Pakistani side of the line. A few weeks after independence, amidst rioting, looting, and arson, her family left to re-settle with other family members in India. One train of Muslims had already pulled into Lahore full of Muslims killed by Hindu mobs, likely in retaliation for a massacre of Hindus, which was likely in retaliation for a massacre of Muslims, which was likely.... you get the idea. And it still happens to this day. A cycle of violent grief stretching back a thousand years, and forward-- how much longer?

So, in 1947, on 9/21 at the age of nine, my mother, her parents, elder brother, younger sister and baby brother boarded a train with nothing more than a suitcase and a blanket. In the darkness of night, the train was attacked by an angry mob. My mother fled into the night with her younger brother and sister. She saw what happened to the rest, but I have never asked her what happened. Death-- indifferent, random, brutal.

Some time later, one of the members of the mob found them in the darkness. He recognized them. They were neighbors. At least, they used to be. He took them home. He washed the blood and tears off of himself and the three children. He fed them. He gave them shelter. After some time, he took them to a displaced persons' camp where family from India picked them up. This man is all of us. In one hand, a machete for a massacre. In another, singing lullabies to traumatized children.

And this is the nature of the paradox; one of the murderers became a savior. From such a brutal act, these three children were saved. This is the dual nature of us all. Capable of incredible cruelty against a neighbor, but then at the same time capable of courageous compassion.

In the ten years since our nation suffered a massacre, which do we choose?