The WTC Attack, Sep 11 2001

Commentary and Analysis

An Arab-American: fear grips my body . . .

By Anonymous

Fear grips my body to the point where I can't leave the house. I'm positive FBI agents wait for me outside the door. They're going to take me away. If I ask questions, if I mention civil rights, if I tell them I want to call someone, they'll say I'm non-cooperative, and punish me accordingly. How many agents will there be? How long will they keep me at their office? Will they make me wait for hours before they talk to me? I'm reasonably certain the experience will be so reminiscent of other times men have me locked in rooms that I will simply crumble. They'll take that as evidence I'm hiding something.

I can't believe I'm in south Florida where the hunt is on for any and all Arabs. Of all the places to be. Of all the places for some of the supposed hijackers to choose to live. Of all the places for them to rent cars. I wonder if the car I rented two weeks ago is now leading FBI agents here. I'm thankful most people here read me as Cuban. Is that a cowardly response?

This particular Friday, September 14th, crawls by. The morning has passed and the dog continues to wait patiently for her walk, which should have happened hours ago. Now it's 2:00. I alternate between TV news, which is having a profoundly negative effect on my whole being, and email. The dog's big brown eyes follow me everywhere. She's the reason I finally force myself out the door. First I drink water and eat a sandwich; I haven't eaten before this because my stomach is tied in knots but I know that experiencing low blood sugar while being interrogated will make it worse. I wear comfortable clothes, and tie a sweater around my waist because the FBI building is probably overly air-conditioned and very cold.

The walk passes uneventfully, at least externally. Days pass. Still no knock at the door. Some of the fear lifts--emphasis on some--but I'm still checked out of my body and not present. The back of my neck and my head ache constantly. I can only cry when my lover puts her hands on me. I need to cry more, but I can't. My body's gone back into the mode it's taken years to break out of--locked up, shut down, tense, fearful. It's a reaction to trauma that makes sense, that I understand. And my understanding can't get me through to the other side.

Horror and fear and sadness have gripped me since Tuesday. I'm still trying to catch up with the reality of the disaster on American soil. Still trying to take in that hijacked planes blew up the World Trade Center and severely damaged the Pentagon, that thousands of lives are lost, that workers at the Pentagon never knew what hit their supposedly impenetrable fortress, that NYC's downtown core may never recover, that the war the U.S. has been waging around the world has come home with a vengeance. I'm still trying to take in 110 stories crumpling like a house of cards, to bodies flying out of windows as some people decided to jump rather than burn in a eerie and haunting re-enactment of New York's 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, an important piece of history that no one references. I'm still trying to catch up with all those pieces of reality. Over the years I've come to believe humans are a slow, dense (in both good and problematic ways) species, with bodies that need time to fully absorb and then heal from cataclysmic and painful events.

I admit it. I'm slow. That took me years to understand, as I dealt with the aftermath of decades of torture, abuse, and neglect. I don't absorb huge, important pieces of information quickly and easily. Whether it's thousands of people dead in what used to be the World Trade Center, or whether it's the fact that many good people care about me and love me, I need time to take it in.

As that painful week crept by, as my physical and spiritual self attempted to keep up with too much information and too much terror, I listened as one white man after another, some representing the American government, some representing the American military, spoke in response to the hijackings and devastation. These men expressed outrage, a desire for vengeance, and plans for war. They reminded me of the early days in the rape crisis movement, when survivors talked about the rage their husband or father expressed upon learning the woman had been raped by another man. We came to understand that response as emotionally unhealthy and emotionally immature; as indicative of the fact that the man was unable to first, focus on the victim and support her, and second, feel the sadness and grief appropriate to the situation. I saw that response expressed over and over again in the aftermath of this tragedy, and it did not reassure me. The people who reassured me--some of whom I know, some of whom I heard on TV--are the people who grieve, who express confusion, who cry, who anguish.

I want the firefighters to finish their rescue work, move into the white house, and lead the country. New York's firefighters are familiar to me--working-class men who speak little and work with their hands. And that is what they did. Thinking not of themselves, thinking not of military strikes, simply doing the job that needs to be done--digging through the rubble to find survivors. This is a working-class response, I thought again and again, watching these guys turn their head away from TV cameras, sip water, and return to Ground Zero. I trust this. They aren't speeding up international events to a pace no one except the truly evil and/or the truly numb can follow. They are focusing where the focus needs to be at the present time. What a different experience this would be if the men in the white house had kept the national focus where it needs to be--in New York and Washington, with the victims, the survivors, and their families/friends. What a different experience this would be if the government had dealt with the tragedy by staying with the tragedy. Instead, these men focused away from the tragedy and on the Arab/Asian world, with the same militaristic, imperialistic, racist attention they've given that part of the world for decades.

I managed to wean myself from the TV the day my fury erupted beyond its regular level as Dan Rather--my lover calls him Dan Lather and we both laugh--states that World War II began in 1941. The ignorance shown by American reporters and government/military officials of basic historical facts appalls and frightens me. I turned off the TV. I jotted down a list of questions that any semi-intelligent journalist would now be asking and attempting to answer: Why did this happen? Who hates America this much, and why? Is this hate and anger justified? What kind of foreign policy does the U.S. pursue, particularly in the Arab world? Which leaders, and which groups, has the C.I.A. funded in the past 20 years? What does it mean that Osama bin-Laden is now vilified by U.S. intelligence when 20 years ago the C.I.A. was funding him and other Afghanistan soldiers as they fought the Soviet Union? How do we define terrorism? Has the U.S. government/military committed acts of terrorism? Where does the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and the U.S. support of Israel, fit into all of this? And finally, what about the claim, repeated over and over with no backing, that the destruction of the World Trade Center is the worst atrocity to take place on American soil? First, is it important and appropriate to rank atrocities? Second, how disrespectful is this claim for Native Americans? For Africans previously enslaved on American soil?

I wrote down these questions and then had to stop, because the back of my neck hurt unbearably, and I needed to pay attention. This pain isn't new to my body. It's come from direct experiences of torture and oppression, and from learning about the horrifying events of the past decades carried out against innocent people in Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq. El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua. East Timor. The list goes on. The finger points back to the white men in the white house. On September 11th the inevitable happened, and the war came home. As wars tend to do, no matter how long it takes. And the American "leaders" didn't seem to understand this. Instead they talked of fresh new assaults on innocent people, on poor dark people, on ancient land, they talked in a way that indicated no lessons have been learned, they talked in a way that indicates American foreign policy will continue to thwart justice, liberation, and human rights for millions of people.

Their response disrupts me profoundly. I'm lurching through a triangle with one side made up of grief over the tragedy, the second side made up of terror over American military retaliation, the third side consisting of fear for my personal safety. I've had no time to absorb any part of the triangle. I'm attempting to move on a timetable imposed by American "leaders," attempting to follow events that are happening way too fast, and, as I've learned over the years, healing can't happen this way.

We all need to heal. I say this to whoever reads this, the first anonymous article I have ever written, standing as a testament to the terror I feel as an Arab in the U.S. We all need to heal. We were traumatized by a horrific set of violent incidents on September 11th. I support each of you in your attempts to heal body/spirit/psyche from the trauma. I support you moving at your own pace. I urge all of us to cultivate our skill to do two things at once--to heal, AND to be alert and active. "You can cry and fight at the same time," my karate teacher told me years ago as I begged her to let me stop sparring after an opponent's powerful kick between my legs left me reeling and weeping. (It also left me thinking: If it hurts me this much, imagine what it would do to a guy. Remember this.) I didn't know then that this teacher would become, had already become, one of my most important life mentors, that the two years I studied with her would prove important to my healing and my sense of self in ways I could neither imagine nor articulate. At the time, I was furious with her. I stomped back onto the mats to resume sparring with my opponent who, in spite of her years of training over my beginner status, suddenly couldn't get close to me because my defensive skills took a huge leap in only a few seconds. I cried, I fought, and I kept my opponent away from me.

My teacher's words hold true for me, possibly for many of us, today. To heal ourselves, to cry, at the same time as we join together, to protest, to pray, to stand vigil, to fight. Not to put aside our need for healing as we contend with the larger political situation, but to do both.

At the same time, I call on non-Arabs and non-Muslims to stand up for those of us who are Arab and Muslim. I know you've heard this, but it bears repeating; we're under siege. We're being harassed, and beaten on the street. We're getting death threats, and at least three people have been murdered. No one is safe, least of all those with visible Arab features and Arab-accented English who wear Muslim dress. Allies--we need you. Stand up for us. Interrupt the comments you hear at work. Talk to the Arab-Americans you know and ask them what you can do, on a physical daily level, to help. Call in to those damn radio shows and say something compassionate and intelligent. Write letters to the editor. Don't leave us alone. We're freaking out. Our terror is well-grounded.


I deplore the people who carried out the horrific acts of Tuesday, September 11th. I grieve for the victims and survivors and families and friends of the attacks. I honor the rescue workers for their beautiful and focused response to the tragedy, and I honor the citizens who committed acts of selfless heroism in the midst of fire, panic, and death. I support diplomatic and legal action to find who is responsible for Tuesday's actions, and I support a fair, legal, international trial if those responsible are found. I oppose military actions by the U.S. government. I oppose terrorist actions by the U.S. government--that is, actions designed to harm innocent women and men and children. I support the U.S. government in focusing its attention here at home, not only on the ravaged city of New York, but on the poverty, malnutrition, and inadequate education many Americans receive, and I support the U.S. government in making a decision to do better by these people. I support a shift in U.S. government foreign policy that will support justice and human rights for my sisters and brothers around the world.

As I stumble through these frightening days and nights, I try with each passing day to survive not only the external crisis but my internal crisis of faith. My daily prayers have gone from a beautiful, simple, grounding ritual each morning to a difficult, excruciating, out-of-body experience that I put off later and later each day. When I do sit down and light my candles and begin to pray, I have trouble remembering what I'm doing and why. How can a spiritual response possibly be adequate to this situation? Can prayer help stop military retaliation?

It's been a healing experience for me to discover my own eclectic, earth-centered spirituality and incorporate it into my daily life. It's become part of the way I deal with and understand the world; it's moved me from a mostly-political/social understanding into a more holistic understanding that integrates politics, spirituality, culture, and love. And while it is true that a spiritual response in and of itself is not adequate, I remind myself that a solely political response is not enough either. I continue to pray, even though my prayers feel grace-less and wooden.

Today I sought out the two "friends" I have made here in south Florida. I put the word friends in quotation marks because in some ways I barely know these retail workers who I chat with them several times a week. They are friendly, low-key men in their mid 40s, working-class, catholic Latinos. I wanted to talk to them because I needed desperately to connect with a human who would not shove an American flag down my throat, and these are in short supply in south Florida at the moment. Only one was at his post; Emilio and I chatted over hundreds of tomatoes which were on sale. He expressed horror over the devastation in New York, and horror over Washington's reaction. Emilio described Arabs and Muslims as beautiful people with a beautiful religion. "We cannot go to war with them," he said passionately, adding that he had been praying like the dickens and he hoped I was too. His heartfelt words and our authentic connection did not end my crisis of faith; however, they did lead to a tiny beginning of an inner shift.

And I end this essay here, having struggled a long time over how to end, before concluding there is no clean stopping place, no obvious finishing line. This essay can't end neatly because not one piece of the triangle I referred to earlier has ended, neatly or otherwise. My grief about the tragedy remains, my terror about the American response remains, my fear about personal safety remains. We are in the midst of an unfolding set of experiences and the present moment is wavering, unstable, and unsettling. I close this essay with an acknowledgement of all of that.

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De Clarke