I was flying back home from Manila on September 10, 2001. Just the week before, we had been awakened after midnight by a call from my brother, Richard. Our father had been rushed to the hospital with an acute abdomen. He was going to require emergency exploration. They feared the big C. By morning, I was on the first flight out to Manila with my other brother, Rob. We flew on Northwest via Narita.
My flight home was marked by a few minor delays. It was the start of monsoon season in Asia and there was a powerful one dominating the skies with its furious winds. My plane needed to wait it out for a few hours on the tarmac in Narita, Japan. I walked around the airport then decided to sit back, exhausted and emotionally drained. I had just come from seeing my father so frail and weak from his surgery. I had been chosen to tell him that the surgeons had found cancer in his bowels, that they had to put a colostomy after removing the tumor and parts of his bowel, that he would require chemotherapy, and that he had also suffered a stroke while on the operating table. This was in and of itself a monumental crisis in my family’s life and I watched my family attempt to grapple with the news and its implications.
The flight back was uneventful for the next 10 hours until the flight attendants requested all passengers to pull down the shades on their windows. The pilots’ request, they explained. At first we thought nothing of it. But when we landed at SFO airport on Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001, the doors did not open right away. And when it did, a US Immigration officer was accompanied by armed soldiers in full battle gear. He announced calmly that the country was under siege. We were to show our passports to them before de-planing. One by one, we quietly wheeled our belongings, showed our passports and bewilderedly walked through the passageways in single file. We passed many soldiers carrying their guns. Even the Immigrations officials at their stations wore their side-arms visibly, ready to pull them out at a moment’s notice, if necessary. The world I was coming home to felt so foreign and sinister.
It took me the next three hours to get home to my family. Cars were not allowed to come near the airports so Louie could not come for me. I lined up for a security-cleared cab. I was told, there are not too many of them, yet.
Ours was one of the two last planes allowed to land on US soil for weeks to come. All other flights were diverted to Canada and elsewhere. We were escorted by fighter jets on our approach to California. Hence, the lowering of the window shades, so we would not panic. I guess, one false move by our pilots and we could have been blown to pieces up in the air, far away from land.
I will never forget that day, nor the aftermath. The entire landscape had changed—of us, our livelihood, as a people living here. Of us as immigrants to this country. Nothing was sacred anymore. Everything was suspect until proven otherwise.
If Bin Laden and his kind had wanted to eke out carnage and devastation, grotesquely and indiscriminately, they succeeded that day. The United States has never before experienced the loss of this many civilians and servicemen in its history in the hands of foreign aggression. More than Pearl Harbor. And it happened right in our doorsteps. More importantly, they infected all of us with a fear so contagious, so pervasive, that it has crippled and questioned everyone’s sense of fairness and sensibilities. It has also exposed all the subtle but yes, it’s there—biases, prejudices, stereotypes.
For the past few days leading up to the 10th anniversary of 9/11, I listened and watched the recounting of events, interviews of survivors, surviving families and friends, heroes and extraordinary people.
I am reminded of two recent movies I watched, where the actions of a few in the aftermath of a disaster, resulted in the sacrifice of some lives but justified in the name of the grieving masses that needed “closure.” There is the life of Mary Surratt, so sensitively portrayed by actress Robin Wright, as one whose life was sacrificed just so the country can properly mourn the assassination of its beloved president Lincoln, in The Conspirator. Or the lie told by three Mossad agents, whose ex-Nazi prisoner, the infamous Surgeon of Birkenau, had escaped, in The Debt. This would have embarrassed the Israeli government and forced the Israeli people to grieve even longer. And so, for the sake of the healing of the nation, they chose to return home as heroes, purporting to have executed their prisoner.
I can’t help but wonder, what price have we paid as a people since 9/11, to feel a sense of justice? Did many lives get unnecessarily sacrificed too? Or principles? Did we violate our humanity in the quest for a swift and resolute retribution? Somehow, I can only feel hollow.
- How we Remember and how we Forgive determines our Character (ees2001.wordpress.com)