Even all these years later, seeing the date September 11 still gives me a small jolt. Last night I was up past midnight trying to put up a course syllabus online. When I glanced at the date in the top right-hand corner of my screen, I jumped a little. I was chatting with my brother online about a documentary on climate change we are working on, and I said, “oh my goodness I just saw that it was Sept 11.” “Yeah,” he said.
I forgot again today until I saw this tweet from President Obama
Because remembering September 11, now, through a lens of fourteen years, I think of how America’s knee-jerk response, the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq, the years of bombings that often killed people as innocent as the ones working in those towers, ultimately led to rise of ISIS, maybe even Boko Haram. If we could go back to that time, if America had not gone to war, if we had investigated better, if we had responded less violently, what would the world look like now? Perhaps it is futile to play “what if” games, perhaps even worse things would have happened. But despite all the trauma of the day, since September 11, 2001, the world has been filled with bombs. Hundreds of them have gone off in Nigeria since 2010. I was closer to the Boko Haram bomb at the COCIN Headquarters Church in Jos on 26 February 2012 than I was to the World Trade Centre on September 11. Americans are loud in their grief, but elsewhere far more people have been killed than were in the towers, the planes, and the Pentagon on that blue-skied day in September fourteen years ago.
Yet it remains an epochal day in the history of the world, the scale of it, and by what it precipitated in the world. I’ll post here a few of the other articles I’ve written about my experiences on September 11. I’ve revisited those memories many times over the years. Reading back over them, I am struck by how each time I remember, other details emerge, while others fade away. Here are three columns I wrote in 2011, around the ten year anniversary of the tragedy.
Daily Trust has recently updated their website. The dedicated site for my column is gone, and almost all of my articles have their introductory paragraphs cut off now. I will try to slowly begin to archive them here on my blog from pre-edited copies that I submitted to my editor. The first article I will post here is on the event of the 10-year anniversary of the attack on New York published on 10 September 2011 and the second and third are from articles I had published in January of 2011.
September 2001, ten years later
(published in Weekly Trust on 10 September 2011)
Ten years ago, September 11, 2011, my flat mate and I arose to a crisp, clear-skied Tuesday morning in the New York City borough of Brooklyn and began preparing for the day. I had recently quit my job as an editor at a small children’s book publishing company in order to return on a Fulbright scholarship to Nigeria, where I planned to live in Jos for the year, doing research before applying to PhD programmes. I hoped to spend that Tuesday packing. While my flatmate got ready for work, I made tea and turned on the radio to listen to the news on New York’s National Public Radio (NPR) station. A crisis had begun in Jos on September 7, where both my flatmate and I had gone to school. NPR had begun to cover it in previous days, and we were anxious to hear the news. But when I turned on the radio, all I could hear was static. Strange, I thought, and turned the dial trying to find a signal. I tuned in to a different radio station, where the news was being reported of a plane flying into the World Trade Centre in lower Manhattan. I imagined that it was a freak accident involving a small private plane that held only a few people, like the one JFK Jr. had crashed in two years earlier. But as we ate breakfast, a school friend of ours from Jos now living in the U.S. called, her voice high and worried. “I just saw a plane flying into the World Trade Centre,” she said. “On TV. Are you Ok?” This was the second plane. The story became clearer. Both planes had been commercial flights. Both towers of the World Trade Centre were on fire and seemed to be structurally damaged. The news was unthinkable. Neither of us knew how to process the information. I had been in Atlanta during the 1996 Olympics and had visited the Olympic park the day before American domestic terrorist Eric Rudolph set off a bomb there, but this was larger and more frightening than anything I had ever heard of. “Are you sure you should go to work?” I asked my flatmate, as she prepared to walk out the door. “Do you think the subways will be running?” “My meeting is in Brooklyn, not in Manhattan,” she said. “I’m sure I’ll be fine.”
We were very young, and neither of us had any idea of the world that day was christening us into. As she proceeded to the subway, I quickly dressed and ran down to the pier on the Hudson River only a few blocks from where we lived, which had a clear view of lower Manhattan. In previous columns I have written about standing on the pier with other New Yorkers, mouths agape as we watched hot fire devour the centre of towers, white smoke pouring across the blue sky into Brooklyn. I’ve described how a ripple of smoke ran down the South Tower before we saw it collapse into dust, how I walked numbly away from the water back towards my apartment, through deserted streets, televisions blaring through open windows. By the time I got back home to the radio, the second tower had also fallen. I lay on my bed, hot tears trickling into my ears trying to calling my flatmate, another friend I thought had been in the tower, my aunts and uncles. All networks were busy. My flatmate got home around noon, covered in soot. She had not yet arrived at work when the train stopped. She had walked about 70 city blocks back home through the ash blowing across Brooklyn, holding a paper serviette from a deli across her mouth and nose. Later, we went back out together, down to the pier where I had seen the first tower fall. The sky was clear and blue and the afternoon sun, hot. Where the gleaming silver twin towers had once loomed over the skyline of lower Manhattan, there was nothing but smoke. Suddenly, we heard the sound of planes overhead. My body tensed. There was a no-fly order imposed. There were not supposed to be any planes in the sky. When we looked up, they were fighter planes. It was a symbol of what was to come.
The next few days, we stayed at home and listened to the radio with two other friends who came to stay with us because they didn’t want to be alone. The couple who lived below us in the brownstone house were both newspaper editors, and one day I stayed with their children while they both went in to work. The children asked me why someone would fly planes into the World Trade Centre. I didn’t know what to tell them. “There are crazy people in the world,” I said. “There are bad people.” Around the city, family members posted photos of missing loved ones on subway walls and lamp posts. Small shrines sprung up around them, with candles and ribbons and letters. A bagpipe procession went past our window, as a funeral was held for a fireman at the Catholic church down the street. The Muslim shop owner around the corner from my house put up a gigantic American flag.
Two weeks later I boarded my plane back to Nigeria, on my way to another wounded city, where my parents had hosted a refugee camp at their house, churches and mosques had been burnt, and one of my father’s students had been found murdered, washed up on the banks of a river. It felt, in those days, as if the whole world were on fire.
Ten years later, both countries I call home are harsher more violent places. The U.S. has turned on itself. American extremists lash out against Muslims, who they blame en-masse for the attacks, filling the internet and airwaves with hatred. Al-Jazeera reports that in the past ten years the FBI has “investigated more than 800 violent acts against Muslims, Arab Americans, or people perceived to be of Middle Eastern origin.” The violent rhetoric in the U.S. does not stop at American borders. Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik, who killed seventy-seven people in a bomb and a shooting this July, cited American bloggers in his online manifesto. In the countries the U.S. invaded following the 9-11 attack the death toll is much higher, and such actions are used by violent extremists as justification for further violence.
In Nigeria, the entity popularly called Boko Haram has, this year, initiated Nigeria’s first suicide bombs, only a few weeks ago attacking the UN building, which, like the World Trade Centre, represented the existing global system. Ten years after the first large crisis, Jos has become an appalling place. The first few crises may have been instigated by politicians, by “bad, crazy people” as I told my landlord’s children in the wake of 9-11, but is continued through communities seeking revenge. Those who were children at the time of the first crisis have grown up to become murderers, committing atrocities against those with whom they might have been friends had they lived in a different city, but whom they have been taught to despise. Parents and clerics and leaders who should be restraining them, encourage hate, or else refuse to speak because they are afraid their children will turn on them.
One of my favourite writers C.S. Lewis imagines in his novel The Great Divorce, Hell, as a place where people continue for an eternity in the path they decided to follow on earth. Unforgiveness, hatred, and arrogance eat away all their good characteristics till they become shadows, left with nothing but the sins they refuse to give up. Given a chance to go to heaven, most of the ghosts in the novel return voluntarily to hell. In heaven they are unable to hold on to their hatred, and they’d rather live in hell than forgive.
Ten years after the Jos crisis and the 9-11 attacks, I am only left with questions and fear for the future. What are our children learning? What are they becoming? What kind of world will we leave them? Where will we be in another ten years? Are we willing to do the hard thing, forgive those who have killed our loved ones and teach our children peace, or do we want to take revenge after revenge, until we have made for ourselves hell on earth?
Anger and the Revolutionary Ideal of Love
(published in Weekly Trust on 8 January 2011)
Nearly ten years ago now, I stood with fifty or sixty other people on a Brooklyn pier looking over the water towards downtown Manhattan, in New York City. It was a crisp September day. The sky was clear and blue, except for the white smoke that streamed over Brooklyn. The iconic twin towers were burning. When the first ripple of smoke travelled down the first tower and it collapsed into dust, I stood with the others gaping. There was a stunned silence. We could hear nothing but the sound of people shouting on megaphones over the water. And then the people around me began to scream. “It’s falling.” “It’s fallen.” “That’s it. He’s going to war,” one man said. “He’s going to war.”
I thought I had just seen a friend die. I walked away, my hands on my head, dry eyed, my mind blank. As I walked back to my apartment, the streets were deserted. I could hear nothing but the sound of television news blaring out of open windows. Two construction workers I had passed on my way down to the water, ran past me. One dropped his helmet. “Leave it. Leave it,” screamed his parter. By the time I reached my apartment, I heard on the radio that the second tower had fallen. I lay on my bed, the sun travelling over me, trying to call my family (all networks were busy), waiting for my roommate to come home.
I lost a friend that day—but not to the towers. The friend who had worked in the world trade centre complex was fine. I lost my friend to anger. “I hope they hunt down who has done this,” I emailed my friend living in distant Midwestern America. “And kill them.” “Why do you want to respond to violence with more violence?” he asked me. “If you couldn’t look them in the eyes and kill them yourself, you shouldn’t say you want them to be killed.” I was furious. What did he know, living far away in an untouched city where he couldn’t smell the smoke, where he couldn’t feel the grit of pulverized buildings and burned bodies floating through the windows and settling on everything like harmattan dust, where he hadn’t suffered the agony of thinking a friend had died, a neighbor had died. His pacifist ideas felt namby-pamby, ideal without experience. How could he preach to me, when he didn’t understand my grief. I wasn’t saying we should go out and kill innocent people. I was saying we should kill terrorists. I never wrote him back. I never spoke to him again.
I flashed back to that day this week on New Year’s Eve, when I heard of the bomb that exploded in Abuja and the rumours of other bombs that turned out not to be true. I can understand now that there may have been more sense to my friend’s words than I gave him credit for. I regret losing a long friendship to anger. In anger, America went into a war they didn’t understand. They geared their action towards stereotypes rather than intelligence, and their actions have caused mass suffering and deaths far beyond what we Americans suffered on September 11.
Yet, although I never supported the war in Iraq, I can understand the anger that made other Americans support it. I do believe that international law should be followed in bringing justice, but I still understand why I reacted so violently to my friends glib pacifism, which did not seem to take seriously the massive suffering caused by those who hijacked planes and brought down towers.
It is true. I am white and the citizen of a superpower. My country has thrown its weight around the world. I can never completely understand the feeling of powerlessness, the feeling that there is nowhere else to go—or the very personal history of oppression. But I do know what it feels like to live in a city under attack, both in New York and in Jos. I have experienced terror attacks in America and lived through multiple crises in Nigeria. I have close friends who are Christians and Muslims in Jos, Kano, Abuja, Kaduna. I have seen the anger on both sides. And I know that it is not my friends, it is not the ordinary people who have committed acts of terror. But it is the ordinary people who suffer when angry people take the law into their own hands. It is the ordinary people whose houses are burnt and brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers and children are killed in the violence of retaliation.
Following my repeated reading of American civil right’s leader Martin Luther King Jr’s 1957 Christmas sermon “Loving Your Enemies” this week, I read excerpts from his book Stride Toward Freedom that describe how he developed his philosophy of nonviolent resistance, from influences as diverse as Marx and Ghandi. He has sometimes been accused of being too peaceful, of being a passive resister, of collaborating too much with the majority in power. Yet, Martin Luther King did not advocate sitting around and letting things happen. He advocated resistance and disobedience to injust laws and to corrupt law enforcers but a resistance that was based in nonviolence and ultimately love—a resistance that helped transform the American justice system and bring change to corrupt and injust policies. In his own words, “True pacifism is not unrealistic submission to evil power, as Niebuhr contends. It is rather a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love, in the faith that it is better to be the recipient of violence than the inflicter of it, since the latter only multiplied the existence of violence and bitterness in the universe, while the former may develop a sense of shame in the opponent, and thereby bring about a transformation and change of heart.” And while King’s fellow civil rights activist Malcom X is often viewed as having more violent solutions to injustice, his turn to Sunni Islam and his trip to Mecca near the end of his life revolutionized his approach. “I was no less angry than I had been,” he told Alex Haley, in their collaboration The Autobiography of Malcom X, “ but at the same time the true brotherhood I had seen in the Holy World had influenced me to recognize that anger can blind human vision” (410). Malcom X anticipated his death, speaking with his brother about martyrs. “If I’m to be one, it will be in the cause of brotherhood” (467).
Both Martin Luther King and Malcom X were assassinated by hateful extremists, and injustice has certainly not completely ended in American society. [UPDATE: In 2015, with the constantly reported killings of young black men at the hands of the police, this becomes particularly clear.] But the peaceful yet passionate forms of protest espoused by both men towards the end of their lives provides a powerful model of how change can be effected. Nigeria is not America. And no outside solution will ever work to bring peace. It must be a peace that come from within. But we can look, as both of these American leaders did, to other models of transformation as examples of ways in which peace can be built, and remember that the deepest ideals can sometimes be the most revolutionary.
The Sad Consequences of Hate
(published in Weekly Trust on 22 January 2011)
In September 2001, my flatmate and I were closely following the events in Jos. We had both grown up in Jos and had moved to New York together after finishing university. Each morning we would turn on New York public radio to listen for coverage of the crisis raging across what we remembered as a peaceful, quiet city. Then, on September 11, two jets slammed into the twin towers in New York, and Jos fell off the international news radar. Although my parents didn’t have a mobile phone in those days, I was able to get through to some other friends in Jos, who had a landline. My parents got word that I was fine when someone came to deliver a bag of garri for the several hundred people camped out in and around their house. They later told me they hadn’t really had time to be worried about me. They had heard the news but figured I wouldn’t have been in the World Trade Centre. In the meantime, there was gunfire on the streets of Jos and hundreds of refugees to find food for.
As New York draped itself in American flags, distraught family members plastered photos of their missing loved ones on subway walls. All over the city, candles were lit in little makeshift shrines to the dead. Two weeks after September 11, I left New York to fly to Jos. My trip back had been planned for almost half a year. I had quit my job in anticipation of spending a year in Jos, and now I was flying from one city in mourning to another. I didn’t want to go. I wanted to stay in New York and heal with the city. But I thought that if I let the attacks change my plans, I would be giving in to the terrorists. So, half in defiance, half because I’d already quit my job, I travelled back to my other home where people went about with haunted eyes, trading stories of where they had been, what they had seen during the crisis. “Happy Survival,” they said. It was an apt greeting for the time.
Those first few months back in Jos, I’d spend hours watching CNN, wincing at the endless replays of the jets slamming into silver buildings, eagerly following the cleanup in New York, listening to stories of the families of those who had been killed in the planes and the towers. A few months after I had settled, the cultural affairs section of the US embassy brought an exhibit to the University of Jos of “Ground Zero” photos taken by a New Yorker photographer—beautiful abstracts of fallen beams, of light rays defined by dust, and portraits of firemen and clean-up workers at the site where the towers had collapsed. I was hungry for images of New York, but as I walked through the rows of photos, I was struck by how the other people around me shook their heads at photos of smoke and ash and weeping people. “This is terrible, this is terrible,” they said. I felt a sense of vertigo. The same people who had just lived through nearly a week of war, of smoke on the horizon and shootings in the streets, the same people who had neighbors gone missing, never to be seen again, these same people were shaking their heads in sympathy for the tragedy in America.
Yet what did America know about what had happened in Jos. CNN was not covering it then. There were no international exhibits of photography travelling around to educate the globe on the thousands of deaths Jos had suffered. In that moment, my world shifted further on its axis. I still grieved New York. But now I wanted to collect the stories of those not constantly on global television, make heard the voices buried under the loud mourning of my homeland.
Sadly, almost ten years later, Jos does rise to the top of African headlines. The shock that a peaceful city would erupt into violence is no longer there. News coming out of the Jos is increasingly more horrifying. “God forbid,” wrote one of my Hausa actor friends on Facebook, when someone invited him to shoot a film in Jos, the home of the National Film Corporation, the National Film Institute and once a booming centre of Hausa films. Jos is now one of the Nigerian cities most likely to make international headlines for violence.
Living in Nigeria with emotional investments both here and in the United States, I continue to recognize eerie parallels between my two homes. The first week of 2011, there was an upsurge of violence in Jos between rival factions, after a car-load of people returning from a wedding party were killed and a bus passing through Jos from Lagos to Yola was burnt. The second week of 2011, a gunman in Tucson, Arizona, shot American Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, and eighteen others. Following the shooting, there was the kind of partisan bickering and casting of blame that has become usual in American public discourse. But whether the kind of violent metaphors and imagery used by “teaparty” political agitators against their political rivals had anything to do with the motivations behind the shootings or not, the rhetoric of hatred that is used regularly in American political discourse contributes to a general atmosphere of dehumanizing “the Other.” The consequences of such hateful rhetoric are seen even more tragically in Jos, where people seem to be killed on an almost weekly basis.
There is a long history of how dehumanizing rhetoric is used to justify violence. In the United States, Americans excused their enslavement and brutal treatment of Africans and their descendents by reasoning that they were not actually human beings. In the genocide in Turkey against the Armenians at the beginning of the 20th century, Armenians were called dogs and swine. In Nazi Germany as death camps were set up, propagandists repeated the old poisonous libel used during pogroms throughout the centuries that Jews drank the blood of Christian babies. In Rwanda the Tutsi were called cockroaches as they were being slaughtered.
I am, thus, horrified and apprehensive when I hear similar kinds of dehumanizing rhetoric in America or Nigeria. In America, extremist members of the conservative “teaparty” movement question the citizenship of President Obama, and make calls to “take America back.” Members of Congress have been called by racial epithets, spat on, had doors and windows of their offices smashed in, and had their home addresses published by opposition parties. In Nigeria, I’ve heard Beroms called “arna” and “blood-thirsty savages.” I’ve seen Fulanis called “dirty/stinking”, “hoards” and “marauders.” I’ve seen calls urging “indigenes” to “drive away the settler,” with violence if necessary. Such rhetoric is followed by attacks, which while also seemingly political in origin, take an even more dramatic toll on ordinary people. Hundreds of people in Plateau State have been killed in the past year, thousands in the past ten.
Right before sending in this article, I received an email telling how two nephews of a Muslim friend “were killed in Anguwan Rukuba. They were machine drivers. The wife of the one killed got a cell phone call. ‘They have me, they’re about to kill me.’ Somebody in the background said, ‘tell them Anguwan Rukuba.’ His people went with soldiers the next day and found the bodies.”
Those in both countries I hold dear would do well to take heed to the warning Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords made in March 2010 after her office was vandalized. In a chilling anticipation of the attack in January 2011, where she would be shot in the head, she said: “The rhetoric is incredibly heated. Not just the calls, but the emails, the slurs.[…]I think it’s important for […] community leaders, figures in our community to say, ‘Look, we can’t stand for this.’ […] For example, we’re on Sarah Palin’s targeted list, but the thing is, the way she has it depicted has the crosshairs of a gunsight over our district. And when people do that, they’ve gotta realize there’s consequences to that action.”