Thursday, September 15, 2011

9/11 – Set Things in Motion

I was 24 on 9/11, and was making my way into the adult world, after some years of activism and overseas humanitarian work, when that seismic moment occurred. The immediate impact was visceral, apocalyptic, the closest I'd ever felt to having my world, as I knew it, fall part. Slowly, and soon after, the effects became psychological. 9/11's true legacy will probably be its lasting influence on our collective psyche. There was no going back to before. Everything was tinged with that event and memory, propelling us into a new strange world, filled with uncertainty, violence and paranoia.

Up until that point, I was a part of, what seemed like, a minority who felt something was deeply wrong with our world even though by all outward appearances everything was fine. GDP was booming, unemployment was low, and the Internet was nascent, but already there was a spirit of innovation and energy that many likened to progress. The prospect of war, or violence, was remote. The Soviet Union was gone, and no threats existed. It was the "end of history", and we were all going to be liberal, well off, well adjusted, if slightly bored, but extremely privileged people with mundane problems.

As a result, it was frustrating and often humiliating to be scoffed at by many people when I talked about injustice, when outwardly there seemed little to complain about. There was no Vietnam, or civil rights issues as in the 60s, or threat of nuclear doom. But I went ahead and talked about what I still thought was important anyway: Africa, and immigrant communities, and the inordinate power of global corporations and their growing influence over our sovereignty, and our environment. I kind of knew what I was talking about, though a lot of it was emotional and trying to express a certain unease about the world I was inheriting.

I also started reading voraciously at this time, about everything, though especially history, and I became aware and attracted to the great struggles of the past, that presented themselves to the generations before me. They all had wars, or some grave injustice to overcome. I read all this with an inner zeal to be a part of this continuum through history, and to not miss out on the great struggle of my time. But our struggles, before 9/11, felt abstract, and numbed by extreme wealth and apathy. There was a nagging doubt, that perhaps there would be nothing as meaningful to fight for as there had been in the past. This might have been good for the world, but it was terrible for a young rebel without a cause.

Many of us thought that if this was life at its best, then it was devoid of meaning, and that there had to be something more. We looked to the 60s, nostalgically, because I think many of our parents were boomers, and we still were deeply moved by the music and art of that era. I remember feeling as if I was born in the wrong era and wished for a time with clearer struggles (and better music) that would call upon sacrifice and courage. I had all this revolutionary zeal, and knowledge, and understanding (so I hubristically thought) and I couldn't figure out what our fight was about, and if it really mattered in the end.

Slowly, after some searching, I became aflame to the No Global movement, and I was involved in protests in Seattle at the WTO, and then at the Democratic National Convention in 2000 (Rage Against the Machine!). Pretty inspiring stuff. We started getting the word corporations and globalization into the mainstream lexicon. There was debate, and a challenge to the global order and I think the bigger joy was catching the powers that be off guard, especially in Seattle. But a movement was growing and it was incredible to be a part of it.

I crisscrossed the country (through 40 states) organizing, and working with a network of activists with code names like War cry and Wings. We communicated with encrypted email, with servers maintained in an unknown place. It all felt serious, and we took ourselves very seriously. I also went on to work on the Ralph Nader Presidential campaign. Special interests, corporate welfare, the 2 party system, the state of environment, became the campaigns that helped direct my discontent.

I also briefly flirted with radical politics for a time, Socialism and Primitivism thrown in with some Anarchistic thought. I made communion with the Redwood forests, I became vegan, and I also tried to bend the arc of my sexuality and gender. It was all very enlightening, and gave me a stronger sense of who I was. I even, through sheer luck, and some hustle, ended up gaining a fellowship to sub Saharan Africa to work in Hiv/Aids education, and came back a strong advocate for generic drugs for the region, and worked hard to raise awareness to the tragedy and suffering there.

By 9/11 I decided all that activism was fine and good, but that I needed to make the most of my talents, and I decided to finally enroll in medical school, which I has been delaying for some time. I was still extremely restless, and more moved by the social and policy issues that medicine touched upon, than clinical practice.

I wanted to continue grappling with the big ideas, and understand the truth of life more and build on the adventures and excitement I had experienced up until then. I didn't feel ready to settle down with the extreme sacrifice and rigid discipline that medicine required. But I resigned myself to it, to be practical and to eventually be an even better activist, with the power, privilege and respect an MD degree brings.

And then 9/11 happened, and I was sitting in a medical school lecture in New York City when it occurred. I was stunned, like most people, and afraid, as my mother worked close to the towers. She survived, though she was trapped in a building for 4 hours. The whole time I couldn't comprehend or process what was happening and was disoriented, in shock. And the media fueling the paranoia and fear didn't help. The repeated images of the planes crashing into the towers led to further anguish and confusion. It was a mind fuck of epic proportions.

Much of my political education at that point was anti-American and highly critical of US foreign policy. There were murmurs within my progressive circles that America deserved this. I didn't agree or disagree at that moment, because I still could not figure out what it was that was happening. I needed time, reflection, and calm analysis. I couldn't fathom how quickly it was discovered that this was the act of Islamist fundamentalists. I was skeptical of the scenarios presented about flight manuals and Korans, and how the supposed perpetrators of this act didn't care to know how to land when they were in flight school. I still couldn't understand how anyone could fly a plane into buildings with such precision and calculation, without practice. Something didn't add up, and no one seemed bothered to step back to reflect and investigate, present evidence.

No, we had to take the word of our leaders, believe and follow them blindly down whatever path they choose. All other voices were deemed unpatriotic, crazy, and disrespectful. It should never be forgotten how small the space for dialogue and debate was at the time. We were turbo charged into War mode, and it was a sick and frightening sight to see and witness.

I remember reading the New York Times on September 12th, and that fine paper of record declared: NATION AT WAR. What? Wasn't this a crime against humanity?

It was surreal, as if I was in some dystopian novel, set in some absurd future, like 1984 or the Brave New World. Hysteria abounded, flags came out of nowhere and an empty, hollow, fascist patriotism had swept the nation and my city. People forget this scary part of 9/11. And then civil liberties were swept aside, with almost zero debate and somehow there was this consensus to go to war in Afghanistan and kill innocent people, to hunt down some fundamentalists in caves. It all seemed extreme and far-fetched.

But with time, I came to understand that Al-Qaeda was real, and that there were people out there who were determined to hurt us. In a resigned manner I came to support the War in Afghanistan, even though it seemed to be an impossible task to use conventional warfare methods, to fight a nebulous enemy.

I had thought that was the end of things, but then slowly the talk of Iraq began, and the internal logic used to justify Afghanistan seemed to wear thin with Iraq. Though it was acknowledged fact Iraq had NOTHING to do with 9/11, polls kept showing that the majority of the US public felt, however, there was a link, and the media played their part diabolically to promote this fallacy with misinformation and innuendo. The truth didn't matter, the polls did, and what people believed was enough justification to continue to perpetuate irrational policy. It was hard not to be dismayed and horrified, if you were a thinking person at that time.

At some point it became apparent that this was going to be an endless war, that would not only go into Iraq, but then Iran, and who knows wherever else struck our fancy. A very deep, fundamental shift in policy had taken place, though fortunately, eventually, many people woke up and organized to try and stop it.

It was around this time, after a year of medical school, that I decided to drop out and pursue my passion to live and act according to the urgency of the moment, to work to make things better. In some ways, I felt the moment I had been waiting for, that struggle of my generation, had finally arrived. I really didn't know what I would do concretely, but I knew I could not be looking at histology slides and sit in anatomy lab, as the world burned and everything I held to be true and good, slowly slipped away. Medicine would always be there, but history doesn't wait. I was ready for the struggle. And I may have had delusions of grandeur, but I sincerely believed that my time had arrived and my purpose was now clear.

Perhaps I was over dramatic, or maybe extremely sensitive, I don't know. Looking back, I don't know if I would react the same now, as I did then. And I am astounded I so readily gave up the secure and tested path, for some unknown quest. And if I am honest, I don't think my motivation was to make the world a better place and to fight injustice, only, though it was a part of it. A lot of it was also about not wanting to be an "adult", i.e., boring, responsible and focused on a bourgeoisie future. It was equally about excitement, and making your mark on the world, shaking things up, making things move differently than predicted and flirting with destruction, because it turns you on. There is something lustful, of that way of living.

Just after March 2003, I decided to leave the country, after having worked hard to organize against the war, culminating on the February 15th protest where millions of people across the world marched against the impending invasion. I felt much solidarity, and joy, in this collective expression for peace. I remember thinking there was no way the Bush Government could invade after such a huge turnout.

It was a deep blow personally to see the Bush government, completely ignore this and invade on March 19th. I had had enough. I couldn't take it anymore. All this along with 9/11 and the culture of fear, paranoia and stupidity became unbearable.

I reasoned that if US foreign policy was unjust, I must work to make it saner, and as a citizen, given it was my tax money killing people, I had a say and would work to stop it. I knew the Middle East was not a good time to go to or work with, in the midst of war, and perhaps it was too late with everything that was taking place. After some research, I realized that after Israel and Egypt, Colombia was the biggest recipient of US aid money, much of it used for repressive means. I somehow decided I must go there, and with some hustling joined some incredible groups working in human rights within Colombia. I spent the next 2 years there, on and off, and this slowly brought me into the realm of working in human rights professionally, eventually garnering a fellowship to study for a masters degree and then working around the globe on numerous humanitarian missions in disaster and conflict zones.

All because of 9/11. I almost look back at what I wrote here in disbelief. I suppose different people react to different events differently, for different reasons. But there was something about me that moved, and tried very hard to align the beliefs in my head, with my actions back then. That consistency was important, not just for some moral reason. It was about survival. I couldn't function back then, if I wasn't true to myself, and nothing seemed worth doing, if it didn't meet the ideals I had set forth for myself.

Along the way, in Colombia, in sub-Saharan Africa, in India, in Haiti, with all my work, slowly the heartbreak of the human condition got to me. I became less angry and stopped looking at things through the lense of justice. I saw problems, and I did my best to provide solutions, and make them better, and just tried to do a good job of things and that was it. It became a job, and I was proud that I could do it, and felt privileged that I was called in to help (and often paid handsome sums of money), and then that was the end of it. I detached, I went shopping, and I became concerned with writing fiction, and women, and adventure in other forms (Peyote rituals, deep treks into the Himalayas, etc.)

But I still often think back, to that 24-year-old fresh-faced fiery-eyed medical student who gave it all up. All because 9/11. What destiny, and now I see what that day means to me, and to the future and everything else, 10 years later. This is just my story. I am sure many people have their stories too, if they stop, to think about it what 9/11 means to them.