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Did 9/11 really change everything? It's hard to tell if you're brown

Witnessing 9/11 in New York, the fear and the unity, no one could agree if we were entering a new world, or a depressingly familiar one

Lakshmi Sundaram
10 September 2021, 11.14am
September 11 tribute in light beams viewed across the East River from Brooklyn, 2014
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Andrew Cribb / Alamy Stock Photo

Conceptual Foundations of International Politics: that’s the class I was trying to concentrate in on a gloriously sunny Tuesday morning, 20 years ago in upper Manhattan. In a small, windowless classroom, the professor droned on about the hegemonic world order. One of my classmates was fidgeting with his phone, and brusquely ran out of the room. Five minutes later, he slunk back in, ashen-faced, and took his seat. “Excuse me, ma’am,” he stuttered. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but something has happened that I think is relevant to our discussion here. A plane has crashed into the World Trade Center. I’m not sure what’s going on.”

We all rush out of the classroom to congregate around the TVs in the lounge, students from all over the world, hands over mouths, sharp intakes of breath and shrieks as the second tower crumbles. We have no idea what this all means.

I spot a friend. “Happy birthday, my dear. Erm, I suppose we’re no longer going to get drinks later?” The words feel churlish as soon as they leave my mouth. Luckily, she gives me an understanding smile.

I grab another friend who is desperately trying to contact her boyfriend, a teacher in lower Manhattan. We decide to escape the zoo of the campus and head to her flat in Washington Heights – whatever is going on, whoever is being targeted, we’re pretty certain that this poor immigrant enclave is going to have zero geopolitical currency.

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Lakshmi, be careful. You know they’re going to be attacking anyone who looks different. Why don’t you buy a cross to wear?

The phone lines are understandably jammed. Finally, my parents are able to get through. “I just needed to hear your voice,” says my mum. “I’ll hang up now to free up the lines. But, Lakshmi, be careful. You know they’re going to be attacking anyone who looks different. Why don’t you buy a cross to wear?” I roll my eyes. “Don’t worry, Amma. People here assume I’m Dominican”. I must confess, though, that I do take a second look at the extra large blinged-out crosses in the local shop windows.

The next few days are a blur. I attempt to donate blood and volunteer at the huge local hospital, but there aren’t enough survivors to need my help. I go down to the lower Manhattan Salvation Army, where the air is still thick with acrid smoke, to see if they need anything. There’s a pile of individually packed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, each with a little drawing and a note, made by primary school students for the first responders. The hundreds of photos of missing people that mushroom across the city are a constant reminder that our tiny efforts to help are pointless. I start wishing that I was a smoker – at least it would give me a tangible way of dealing with all this nervous energy.

Underlying everything is a steady drumbeat of whispered accounts of brown people being beaten up. Stories that don’t make it into the media. My South Asian and Middle Eastern friends start making sure they don’t go out alone, especially in the evenings. The Sikh boys and hijabi girls are particularly organised – they’ve had to deal with this many times before. My cousins living in Queens and New Jersey resign themselves to buying large American flags and sticking them onto their cars – “It’s just what we have to do, Lakshmi” – as a hopeful antidote to harassment.

Classes tentatively start up again. The ‘War on Terror’ dominates the airwaves. Our Conceptual Foundations discussions are now all dominated by the intel from our classmates who are in and out of UN Security Council discussions, just a few kilometres away. Others explain wearily that far more people die every day from preventable diseases than perished in the terrorist attacks, and that’s the real war we should be focusing on. Chilean classmates remind us, though, that this isn’t the only 9/11 of note. That, almost thirty years earlier on this date, the US helped Pinochet orchestrate a coup d’etat ousting Allende, paving the way for years of brutality. Everything feels completely different, yet also achingly, depressingly familiar.

Twenty years on, I still can’t tell if the foundations of our current world order were shaken on that day, or further solidified.

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