For many of us over thirty years old, September 11, 2001 is the ultimate demarcation of our experience as citizens, a pre- and post-worldview of who we are as Americans. We remember where we were when we heard or watched the news about the Twin Towers. Do you remember where you were two days later, on September 13, 2001? I do. I was with a group of anxious and excited strangers.
We were attending Pasadena’s Citizens Police Academy. There had been an application process to enroll, we had to either live or work in the city, space was limited, and it was our first class. We were there to find out about the interior workings of our police force, maybe even glean some gossip. My personal motive in participating was to perhaps sift through their performance and find a little dirt, a little ugliness, tacit agreements or hypocrisy, all to improve the verisimilitude of my planned mystery series.
Halfway through that evening’s class the chief of police, Bernard Melikian, was invited to speak. I had never met a police chief outside of a television series. After welcoming us, he spoke of his heritage, and as I listened I learned that the largest Armenian immigration to this country, when his family came over during its attempted genocide, coincided with that of the largest Mexican immigration, when my family came over during its civil war. He felt a kinship between these populations, he said.
As he continued to speak he recounted a war story. During the Gulf War, he took leave to a small town in Saudi Arabia. Before he left, his military base warned that the US military would not and could not intervene with the civilian authorities. He was confident he could take care of himself. In the town he noticed a police station, as well as the heavily armed soldiers posted outside of it, and being a police officer he was fascinated. So he took a picture of the police station, completely unaware that taking photographs of government buildings was forbidden by law. Suddenly weapons were pointed at him, the soldiers yelling at him in a language he didn’t understand, and he was trying to explain in a language they didn’t understand. For the first time in his life, he was absolutely powerless to determine the outcome. Up until that moment he had been a good officer, a decent officer, but always on the power end of the situation. He realized that this is something that happens in the US every single day. This, he said, transformed his perception of policing.
While in Pasadena, he said his goal was to work to ensure that the police entering communities are not seen as a bigger problem than the criminals. He worried about the talk of zero crime. He worried about how people with guns treat the Constitution at three o’clock in the morning, without witnesses. “You want zero crime? You can have it. Give the police unlimited funds, unlimited weapons, and tear up the Constitution,” the implication being that that was an unacceptable price. To end his talk with us he said, “I don’t want my granddaughter to ask me, years from now, ‘What was it like when America was free?’”
Browsing through my journals recently I noticed I’d written my contempt for President Bush’s “Go out and buy” quote, as well as my utter disbelief that the bellicose leader of Iraq actually had any “weapons of mass destruction.” But at that time the extent of my protest was to honk my support to the group of war protestors on the corner of Lake Avenue and Colorado Boulevard. My excuse: I was busy getting a master’s degree, working, raising my family, paying bills, trying to write a novel. I was busy. My rationalization? I was doing the work. I donated to charities. I was teaching diverse classrooms; I was educating future teachers, I was incorporating themes of social justice, as well modeling to teachers that they were social agents of change. I was doing the work. I was, I tell you, really, really I was.
In the intervening years, the September 11th attacks paid off in ways I’m not sure even the terrorists anticipated. We’ve sanctioned torture and lost any residual moral high ground we may have once had. We accepted the information gleaned from all-too-human weapons of torture as necessary and accurate. As a nation we’ve yanked our limited resources out of education, out of health and welfare of our citizenry, out of infrastructure, and plowed them into the maw of the military industrial complex. Billions were spent and fortunes made.
Fear united us first against the perception of terrorism, and then against one another. In our own country our leaders have sown financial, emotional, and mental terror. We as a nation are now terrified of free speech, terrified of our actual imperialist history, afraid to acknowledge the major transgressions of this nation, ready to blame those who invest in compassion, kindness, and gentleness. Let’s make America monocultural again. Let’s make America monochromatic again. Let’s make the world miserable again; there was once a time when they envied our social mobility, our freedom, our leadership. Now, we’ve elected a candidate who looks to reap the benefits of all this fear.
On November 9, 2016 I realized the work that I had been doing, the work that I was proud of, that I had committed myself to, wasn’t enough. I got out of bed after too much bourbon and three hours of sleep and drove to Cal State Long Beach where I teach “Cultural and Linguistic Diversity” for aspiring teachers. All semester long, we had been uncovering the hidden histories of the US, and working to broaden our perspectives of our students and the parents of our students. We had worked to recognize and tackle our own “isms”: classism, racism, ableism. As I drove that morning, I felt like a fraud who had duped herself and her class into believing we could make the world a better place one elementary classroom at a time. I was disgusted with my country, and with myself.
That morning, sixteen of us gathered in a circle and responded to my question, “How do you feel, and how are you taking care of yourself?” In our circle of shared astonishment and grief, one woman expressed shock that this was the man who history books twenty years from now would list as our president. “What do I mean, twenty years from now? Next January!” One woman wept for her undocumented brother.
I drove to Occidental College and asked my afternoon class the same question. Again, astonishment and grief, and as we shared with one another one woman wept for our country. After class a student came up to me. “Thank you,” he said, “for letting us know how you feel, for letting us talk.”
That evening I began monthly donations to Planned Parenthood and ACLU. Why, I asked myself, had I waited so long?
I know I am not alone with these questions. Today I belong to a number of recently formed groups and we encourage one another in our activism. Inspired by Rebecca Solnit, among others, I am committed to one concrete action daily. I want to believe that we will reach critical mass, that the numbers of our opposition cannot and will not be ignored. I think of Chief Melikian and the hypothetical question posed by his imaginary grandchild. Will my own grandchildren ask me, “What was it like when America was free?” Not if I can fucking help it.