September 11, 2021

Photo credit: Shamila N. Chaudhary; 2016 Democratic National Convention, Philadelphia, PA

It’s been twenty years since I traveled on this day. Every year on this day, logic and rationality momentarily retire from their daily obligations, yielding the floor to suspicion, to the what-ifs of a fearful mind: they did it once, they could do it again. 

Today I took the train from Washington, D.C. to New York City. My stomach is a jumpy knotty mess of anxiety. My breath is shorter and more forced than usual. For days before my trip, I sat nervous and anxious, thinking I should cancel. I didn’t want to travel on this day. Any day but this day. 

It doesn’t feel right to be shuffling back and forth on trains and planes, or to be pursuing the hustle of privileged travel and opportunity, in New York of all places. In the newspaper, on social media, and in the day’s interactions, everyone is sharing their memories of 9/11.

I do not claim any rights to retrospective thinking. I am unimportant: I am still alive. I’d much rather hear from the dead.

What mundane details of their mornings might they share as they made their way to work? Did they drink coffee or tea when they woke that morning? Who did they kiss goodbye? Did they have a weird feeling in their gut? Did the angel of death appear before them in a dream, informing them that the Muslims were coming and they would be the end of them and of America? 

Heidelberg Project, Detroit, MI (Photo Credit: Shamila N. Chaudhary)

I imagine myself telling the dead of how we invaded Iraq, then Afghanistan, and how we built a “coalition of the willing” against al Qaeda. I’d make sure to explain that we also endured significant collateral damage in doing so, hurting innocent civilians along the way, including our own citizens who succumbed to unprecedented surveillance and scrutiny by the state.

I’d explain that being Muslim in America would never again be the same. 

I would tell the dead: even though at times our response felt intellectually lazy and morally wrong, we did it to avenge your deaths. But it wouldn’t be true. We didn’t avenge their deaths at all. We did it to make ourselves feel safer – to feel the blood pulsing in our veins in opposition to the reminders of those shadowed bodies falling from the towers.

The dead are only important as long as we are still alive. 

As much as I want to hear from the dead, I cannot run away from my own tragedy – the tortured and displaced guilt of the living. I try to run from it, but I keep falling at the foot of my past. A guilt that I wasn’t at the Pentagon, or in New York, or on one of those planes. A guilt for not having family in Iraq or Afghanistan who suffered the repercussions of the attacks. A guilt for having built an entire career off of analyzing the aftermath of 9/11. A guilt over sometimes being an unidentifiable Muslim.

The same guilt prevents me from asking the dead a question I already know the answer to: did we honor you with our deeds and actions? 

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