Clearing Away the Smoke
By Adam Cohen on 09/11/2012 @ 11:07 AM
This is my origin story:
Eleven-year-olds are very impressionable. That’s the age I was when the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 gripped the world and my home town just outside of New York City.
I can vividly remember that day. Rumors passed through the school, but it was not until my last class, social studies with Ms. Cimbalo, that the news was confirmed. Most of us hardly understood what she said, but knew it was serious from the tone of her voice. Students whose family members worked near the towers were allowed to go to the office and call home to make sure they were okay. I went home and remained glued, along with the rest of my family, to the television for hours as reporters spoke in somber, and sometimes frightened, tones. Footage of the attacks, the billowing fires, the bodies falling from incredible heights like tiny black specks, and the towers crumpling with terrifying speed played on repeat. Gray smoke choked the skies for days after, providing a physical metaphor for our grief. We could see it from our classroom windows. News came of the desperate searches through the rubble for survivors, candle-lit vigils around the country and around the world and stories of the heroic actions of New York City police officers and firefighters. Stories spread quickly about parents who ran from the devastation, who by the stroke of luck decided to go to work late that morning or, in devastated hushed tones, who did not make it out alive. A great wound was inflicted on us all that day. The center of that wound was just miles away from me. I barely knew what was going on, but I knew that my world would never be quite the same.
The only thing that saved us during that dark time was baseball – America’s past-time. It still brings a certain warmth to my chest to remember the first Mets game at Shea Stadium after the attacks. With the city still reeling, the Mets played host to their rivals, the Atlanta Braves. A red, white and blue ribbon was affixed to the New York City Skyline that adorned the scoreboard and the Mets players donned NYPD and NYFD hats rather than their normal blue and orange ones. The fans cheered, cried and waved American flags during the pledge of allegiance and then, just as always, the players took the field. There was baseball to play. The Mets were trailing in the bottom of the ninth. But then, when all hope seemed lost, star catcher Mike Piazza launched a towering, majestic walk-off home run. For those few moments, as he ran the bases with a fist outstretched to the sky, all was right in the city and in the world.
Then, in October, the United States invaded Afghanistan to punish those responsible. As that wound in the middle of Manhattan continued to fester, we chose to use our collective grief as motivation to lash out at the world.
Eleven years later that war is still being fought in our names and in the names of those whose lives were lost that day. Following from those initial questions, this war remains an important part of who I am and how I see the world. I’ve followed news from Afghanistan with great disappointment as what began as a quick war to topple the Taliban has stretched into a drawn out campaign with wide-reaching consequences: it has expanded, disrupted more societies, broken more families and blighted more childhoods since 9/11. Friends of mine have gone over to Afghanistan to fight in this war. Thankfully, all of them have returned home safely. I know that others have not been so lucky. . My curiosity and interest in what started that day came with me to college. I studied foreign policy and the conflict in Afghanistan as an undergraduate at Brandeis University. I went as far as to write my senior honors thesis on the history of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan during the days of Soviet occupation in order to better understand how 9/11 happened. Let’s just say that we’re more culpable than anyone would like to admit.
Now, I work for an organization that, like me, saw what happened that dark day and chose the path of understanding and healing rather than anger and retaliation. From the start, the Friends Committee on National Legislation was and remains to be an outspoken voice against the U.S. decision to retaliate for the September 11th attacks. Working for FCNL on U.S. policy towards Afghanistan gives me an opportunity to add my voice theirs and to work for the end of this conflict that has now gone on for half of my short lifetime. I consider myself lucky to have a job where I can speak from my core beliefs about how the United States should end this conflict and begin the long-overdue pursuit of peace and reconciliation, true healing, and closure for all of us. Eleven years after the 9/11 attacks, FCNL and I are still working to clear away the gray smoke.