"Where were you when... ?" Those of us old enough to remember that question becoming forever hinged on the terrible news of Nov. 22, 1963, know that tragic moments of history can fix an instant of our lives and everything surrounding us.
Occasionally, of course, an entire year can be life-framing, such as 1968: the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, the Democratic National Debacle in Chicago. But for the nation, especially for older boomers coming to political consciousness in 1963, the engine of American prosperity came to a complete and violent halt. The murder of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, a president charismatically identified with youth and "vigah," threw everything into question in a way that marked our calendars as Before JFK and After.
Certainly, an earlier generation had Dec. 7, 1941, the "day the will live in infamy." And this week we're being transported back a decade (via media ad infinitum) to where we were, what we were doing, with whom, and what we were about in that instant. Beyond personal reflection, an occasion like Sunday's jarring decennial anniversary is also a moment to reflect on who we were then and now as a nation.
The usual images of those affected by the attacks of September 11, 2001 -- the stereotype of Americans that Osama bin Laden likely had in mind -- was of the dominant white business guys, upscale on the 106th floor. Many did fit that description and continue to be mourned. One friend was at the hopeful start of a new relationship, even flying to Manhattan to see him, a sharp young finance guy, and maybe visit the glimmer of her future. Then the news hit that there was now nothing but smoke and sky at the 103rd or 105th floor where he worked.
But it's also important to see how 9/11 magnified the biases sourly lurking in America's shadows. This week the racial and cultural prejudice activated by the attacks has also been exposed in some media reports (hear "Mall Counterterrorism Files ID Mostly Minorities" on NPR's Morning Edition). On Sept. 11, 2001, the American pot melted together at Ground Zero, the Pentagon and on the crash site in Shanksville, Pa.
Or how about the statement from the President's Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, which says in part, "The aftereffects of the 9/11 tragedy also saw a rise in hate crimes against American Muslims, Arab Americans, and those perceived to be Arab or Muslim. Specifically, the Federal Bureau of Investigation found a 17-fold increase in hate crimes against American Muslims immediately after 9/11. Tragically, this backlash included the loss of lives of American Muslims and those who were perceived to be Muslim."
A decade later, I have the privilege of getting a jet's eye view of our national spectrum, as an editor at New America Media (NAM), the news service reaching 60 million adults, who follow about 3,000 ethnic media outlets within the United States in every color and tongue on the planet. My colleagues' coverage of the 9/11 decade sharpens our multimedia lens on the experiences of American Muslims, to be sure, but also on those of Filipinos, Latinos, Chinese Americans and others, often with insights only possible in a place that has (mostly) opened its "golden door," in the phrase of Emma Lazarus, to the world.
I want to note just two pieces on the NAM 9/11 page. One, by colleague Aruna Lee, an immigrant from Korea, interviewed a Korean couple now aging with something most of us won't feel every September 11 from now on, the pain of losing their son. "Ten Years After 9/11: Korean Families Still Hurting" begins:
"Ten years is an epoch, but our hearts remain as black as charcoal," a teary-eyed Sung-soon Kang said as she recalled the tragic events of 9/11 and the death of her only son. The 70-year-old and her husband, Pil-soon, 73, added that September is a particularly difficult month for them.
Also, Andrew Lam, a fellow NAM editor, wrote "Post 9/11, Is Coming to America Still Worth the Journey?" It's a letter to one of his cousins in Vietnam, who asked whether it was still worth coming to America. Andrew is author most recently of East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres (Heyday Books). His eloquent reply is both disconcerting and encouraging.
With our wars and human rights travesties, such as "extraordinary rendition" of uncharged terror suspects, Lam replies:
"While America once stood for freedom and democracy, it is not clear what the nation stands for these days." But come, bids Andrew to his cousin: "The American Dream you spoke so fondly of: It is you who renews it. Without you, who dreams the American dream, the country is in danger of becoming old and senile. Without your energy, we would weaken. Even if we don't know it yet, we all desperately need to be reborn through your eyes."