Remembering 9/11: Empathy and Sympathy Would Follow the Horror

by Gayle E. Tice

On the morning of September 11, 2001, my mother cried as I pulled on my socks and then ran for my bus to the fifth grade. The television news was on; it was trained on the Twin Towers. My father stayed with her until she could call and make sure her family in New York was alright. I got on the school bus and watched young boys crash finger airplanes into each other and laugh. I got to school and my teacher, Mrs. Spawn, was crying like my Mom.

Both my mom and my teacher were worried that members of their family might be at home or at work near the towers.

Mrs. Spawn told the class that we were going to be alright; we probably weren’t going to be attacked in our desks or in our homes. She also had to tell the class that what had happened wasn’t funny and that it was alright to be upset, and that it was insensitive to laugh. She shared why she was going to be watching the news or waiting for a phone call during the school day. I remember Mrs. Spawn as one of my most emotionally conscious teachers – willing to share her feelings and help her students with emotional conflict.

I don’t remember what educational activities we did that day, but I do remember what I learned. I began to understand that people could do truly awful things. I sensed that things were going to be different somehow after that day. I recognized that I could be horrified by my peers and comforted by people who were breaking apart themselves, all at the same time.

The 5th grade was also the year that I watched the movie Roots in class, and had to start thinking about the American enslavement of Africans as more than something that wasn’t very nice to do. On a related topic, the 5th grade was the year that I first studied the civil war, which included terrible descriptions of battlefield wounds and infections. So, all in all, it was a year of many awakenings to suffering. It was a good year to have my most emotionally conscious teacher.

Soon there would be anthrax scares, and baby powder sprinkled in my mailbox. There would be a sense of unity in American flag pins, American flag T-shirts and “I love NY” bumper stickers. There would also be Internet games where you could kill a cartoon Osama Bin Laden over and over again, in ways that were meant to be comical.

Terrorism would be simplified into one face, on an over-sized head with a larger-than-life white cloth wrapped around it. But what little I knew about the world so far had already told me that horrific acts had more than one face. And the factors that differentiated terrorism from all other horrific acts weren’t very clear to me.

Many of the things I heard about the world dynamics involved in 9/11 and the wars that followed were full of fear and slurs, broad generalizations, and Weapons of Mass Destruction.

But instead of asking important questions I mostly stopped listening to the emerging news at all. Soon, my favorite form of print media was children/young adult fantasy literature. I was often accused of escaping into books, of trying to live inside them more or less. But I also read books that I would not want to live in.

For 7th grade English/Social Studies I read a book called The Breadwinner, published in 2000 by Deborah Ellis. The book is set in Afghanistan under Taliban rule, and an 11 year-old girl puts on her dead brother’s clothing to raise money and shop for her family after they have been left without a man to take care of them. Her father has been arrested for having been educated abroad. Predictably, she is scared of being discovered in a society that does not let women venture outside without a male relative. Fortunately, her father had taught her how to read. So, dressed as a boy she was able to make some money reading to illiterate adults, though she also has to resort to other tactics.

Liberating children – any children – from that kind of treatment sounded like a noble thing to fight for. So did stopping those people that would spread violence in the world. That is the image I carried about what our soldiers were trying to accomplish in the wars that had begun. They were saving people within Afghanistan and Iraq – and by extension the rest of the world – from a particular group of people that were oppressive and dangerous.

Everything made sense when I thought about innocent children and families being saved from a particular group of bad people. But the conversations I heard around me vilified these children and every other resident of Afghanistan and Iraq. These voices argued that those people were all too far gone with extreme teachings. I had to look up a summary of The Breadwinner to remember that the story was set in Afghanistan and not Iraq, as it became clear that the two countries are actually quite different from each other.

In 12th grade I took a class in basic criminal law and the constitution. Answering a question from the teacher about whether we thought all Muslims (or all people from the Middle East, although Afghanistan is not in the Middle East, technically) should be banned from American flights, many in the class answered “Yes” so quickly that it seemed like a reflex, something so obvious that it required no thought.

When I countered by saying, “So white people shouldn’t be allowed in office buildings, or schools for that matter,” I had to explain myself. The Oklahoma City bomber, the Columbine shooters, and other Caucasians that had perpetrated horrific acts had not managed to make Caucasian people the “face of terror.” At this point, I had never had a Muslim classmate, at least not one who spoke or dressed in any way that would indicate their faith.

There is now a focus on the religion of Islam, the Middle East region – and also portions of Africa and Asia – as being sources of a great wave of violent thought and action that has touched both America and Europe. I find it encouraging that there are books that can give young readers insights into the experiences of people living under Taliban rule, as well as books that discuss Islamic traditions as they are when the specter of terrorism is not involved. I am not sure that I would have had the same sense of sympathy for these people that I had never come in contact with if I had not read The Breadwinner.

In addition, I recently read Malala Yousafzai and Patricia McCormick’s book for young adults, I am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World. It was published only a year ago. It is difficult to put down this account of Malala’s childhood, and its description of the educational and political history in Pakistan as the Taliban waged war around her home, and ultimately shot her at close range for her advocacy work. The book is not overly complicated or graphic (considering the subject matter that it has to cover) and is well worth reading for people of any age.

Malala’s actions are inspiring and her story compelling. Her story offers a look into the history of a country which is intertwined with ours. Her book makes sure that readers know she has many of the same concerns that any young person could relate with – a sometimes irritating sibling, the desire to do well in school, conflicts with friends, silencing the alarm clock and running late, wanting her family to be safe, wanting to grow taller and be taken seriously. Malala’s story inspires as much empathy as sympathy, for many readers will have experienced at least some of what she has.

This book should be of greater interest since it discusses events that happened fairly recently in history – 9/11 itself and the post-9/11 era. In the wake of 9/11 I am glad that narratives such as this one have been published. It offers hope for greater understanding, both emotional and historical.

 

Author’s Note:

I found myself wanting to write about what 9/11 and its aftermath have meant to me. It became a story about what kinds of media formed my views, specifically the impacts of a couple of narratives about living under Taliban rule. I feel that these narratives helped counter a lot of nasty things that have come up in conversation and over the Internet. They have helped me view things with some sympathy, and even empathy. They of course don’t lessen the horror of what happened, or indeed any of the many atrocities that have occurred since.

Gayle E. Tice

https://www.linkedin.com/in/gayletice

 

Editor’s note:

Gayle is a recent college graduate, and resides in the Seattle area. She is a freelance writer and focuses primarily on urban affairs and social justice.

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