A day of justice and reflection

I was on Twitter last night when the first reports came in that President Obama was going to address the nation regarding a national security issue. It didn’t take long before the news about Osama bin Laden’s death leaked out, and later, the President confirmed it. It was a moment of surprise, relief – and renewed mourning.

Those of us who were directly impacted by September 11, 2001 will always feel a pang of anguish upon remembering the events of that day. I was more fortunate than most. My dad worked at the World Trade Center Marriott in the Engineering department. As it turned out, he had the day off because he had a kidney stone and needed treatment. I was here in Atlanta, and had no idea that he was at the doctor’s office.

That morning, I walked into work, switched on my computer and saw an early news report on Yahoo! that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. At first I assumed it was a private plane – tragic, of course, but an isolated incident. Before long, it became clear that something far worse had happened. The internet was overloaded and getting any information was difficult. This was before the days of smartphones and social networks. In a panic, I called my parents and only got a fast busy signal. I asked my now-former husband (also from New York) to call them intermittently to see if he could get through. My brother also tried calling.

Someone eventually rolled a TV into the main foyer to show the news broadcast. The second plane had already hit the tower and everything was smoke and fire. I was in shock and terrified at the thought of my dad was there. Then, the moment I will never, ever forget as long as I live. The towers – the beloved icons of my hometown – collapsed. I think I screamed. I thought I was going to throw up. I knew that if my dad was there, he was most certainly dead. I was distraught. My co-workers tried to comfort me and attempted to call my parents on my behalf with no luck.

About an hour later, the office was closed due to security concerns and I took the bus home in a daze. My former husband, brother and I sat on the couch, watching the news in agony. Our attempts to call anyone in New York were futile. Late in the afternoon, my uncle in Texas called saying that he was finally able to get through to my parents and that they were OK. My parents watched the towers fall from outside the doctor’s office on Queens Blvd in Sunnyside and wept.

Two weeks later, I flew up to New York to see my parents. It was a very hard time for them. As a native New Yorker, it was also painful for me to see part of my city destroyed and not be there to comfort, process and grieve. My friends in Atlanta, although certainly shocked and sad, could not really understand what it was like to experience that kind of loss. I think many of them finally did understand this past week after seeing the devastation wrought by the tornadoes that came through Alabama. Many people here either are from or know people who live in the areas that were hit by the tornadoes. The only difference is that September 11 was caused intentionally by people, not randomly by nature. We can accept nature for being capricious and fickle; it’s harder to forgive people for wanting to cause harm to others.

As we made the final approach into New York, the pilots did something they have never done before or since – they flew over what is now known as Ground Zero. Two weeks later, the ruins were still smoldering. I looked down on what was left of the World Trade Center site and began sobbing. The man next to me very kindly asked me, “You haven’t seen this yet?” and when I shook my head no, he sat with me in compassionate silence.

For years, flying into New York, the World Trade Center was my welcoming beacon on the final approach. I would see the towers shining in the sun and know that soon I would be headed over Brooklyn and touch down in Queens. It is still never easy flying home and not seeing them there. Manhattan feels incomplete now, and nothing they build now will really replace what was lost. They will simply fill a void.

The name “bin Laden” is burned so deeply into the American psyche as being synonymous with “evil” that most people do not even realize that the bin Laden family has built well-respected and successful businesses. In 2003, I took my first trip to India (on the eve of the Iraq War, I might add) and had a layover in Dubai. Walking down the street, I passed a construction site with a big sign that said “bin Laden Construction.” On one side of the world, the name was synonymous of destruction of skyscrapers; on the other side of the world, the name was busy building skyscrapers.

And now, here we are. Osama bin Laden is dead and all of the memories of September 11 and its aftermath come flowing back. I’m relieved he is gone, because the world needs less hatred in it, but I am not jubilant. I don’t celebrate the loss of any life. I read a quote today that really resonated with me, attributed to Harry Waizer, a September 11 survivor: “I just can’t find it in me to be glad one more person is dead, even if it is Osama bin Laden.” However, I am simply grateful that justice has been done. I hold in my heart the memory of September 11, and send prayers and light to those who lost loved ones or survived the attacks in New York, Washington D.C. or Pennsylvania. May they finally be able to close the door on this painful chapter in our history and begin healing.

(Photo credit: David Paul Ohmer on Flickr. Regrettably, I don’t have any personal photos of the WTC.)

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