Australian expat Virginia Becker had been living in the US for just eight months before 9/11. Now a dual citizen, she reflects on what the tragedy means for Americans and us all.
My Chicago-born husband and I were married in June of 2001, and I had been living here in the US for all of eight months when the events of September 11th, 2001 unfolded; I was still the kid in the candy store and the child on her best behavior at a house where I didn’t really know everyone and had never visited. That crystal clear, blue-skied autumn day hung solemnly above my head as I sat in silence on a step, digesting what I had seen, the stillness punctuated only by leaves rustling in the trees. No traffic roared, no birds chirped. Just a bell jar of desperate solitude.
Talking to those around me, it felt like I was attempting to comfort a recently bereaved acquaintance rather than a family member, and I was only able to hover awkwardly in the background trying to think of something useful to say, but not really helping a lot. It just didn’t feel like it was truly my own loss, as horrified and saddened as I was, my heart aching for all those who lost lives that day as well as those left living and reeling from shock. For weeks, it was all anyone could talk about; magazine covers strewn with horrific imagery, news reports telling and retelling stories of survival and death, last phone calls, missing people, and severed families. But it still was not part of who I was.
Last year, I became a newly minted dual American Australian citizen. This step has had a far greater impact that I could have imagined, way beyond the simple never-having-to-deal-with-immigration again and being able to vote. I now belong, for better or worse, for richer, for poorer. And interestingly, now, ten years on, I feel like what happened on September 11th is my history, and part of who I am. I take my duty to participate in the democracy that is America (campaign finance issues notwithstanding) very seriously, and that means a deep contemplation of what it all means to us now, not only as a nation, but as part of the world. When you don’t live here, it is very easy to separate and emotionally distance yourself from the event, because it happened to Them, not Us.
This led me to thinking about how often I personally (and I suspect many of us) brush off news of horrific terrorist events and casualties of war in other places: reports of suicide bombings, train station bombings, firefights. It’s very easy to hear news like that, think, “How awful, but I guess they’re used to living with those kind of events,” and move on to the next thought. But the people directly involved in those incidents are human — they likely remember exactly where they were, what they were wearing, and what the sun felt like on their face when they heard the news or witnessed the act, just as all of us do about the events of 9/11. Eyewitness accounts, such as this palpably terrifying one from the Wall Street Journal, still cause visceral and emotive reactions among us ten years later, even with Osama bin Laden dispatched to the hereafter. The same can be said for all people throughout the globe who are dealing with horrendous acts of violence and death, not just us here. We are not special or different — we have more in common than we dare to dream.
The anniversary of September 11th serves as a reminder to us that we cannot – must not – forget that inflicting suffering on others does not assuage our own suffering, and this applies from an interpersonal level right up to an international level. It’s a reminder to get involved in our communities and activities that are a force for positive change. It’s a reminder to engage with our democratically elected representatives to make sure they truly do represent us, and are doing what is best for the community, the country, and how we fit into the world. It’s a reminder to read about and interact with people from cultures that differ from our own and challenge ourselves to notice the similarities rather than just the differences. A reminder that we are all human, existing precariously together on a tiny rock hurtling through the black silence of space, no matter where our borders lie.