We interrupt our politics-as-usual Thursday to bring you this special remembrance of 9/11 from Team Epicenter, our writers, editors, contributors and neighbors. Do you want to share your story? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll possibly include it on our site and social media.
Once, I was trying to explain what it was like to be a reporter on and after Sept. 11, 2001 and I told my friend: “We thought there’d never be another story we cover. It felt like this day would basically be the rest of my career.”
To that, she said, “Well, hasn’t it been?”
Twenty years on, I realize she’s right. Before Epicenter, I spent two decades in the mainstream media in the middle of every major news event of the 21st century so far: the Great Recession, immigration, globalization, terror attacks, school shootings, extreme weather and climate change, racial reckonings or the promise of them, and, of course, the Trump years. 9/11 feels like the through line. (An aside: My recollection is a chapter in the book, “At Ground Zero: The Young Reporters Who Were There Tell Their Stories.” I reproduced it here.)
Photo: S. Mitra Kalita
This is a reporter’s notebook I used on that day, doing interviews in Astoria and Jackson Heights in Queens and along Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. Photo: S. Mitra Kalita
For all the exhaustive coverage of 9/11, we are still discovering things were not what they seemed. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is chief exemplar. So are lines like W’s “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” Last month, my URL Media colleague Habibur Rahman of TBN24 was on a roundtable with me and shared what it meant to hear this from the perspective of an American Muslim.
Twenty years later, I live just nine blocks from where I was living on that day, once again a journalist covering Queens. You’d be mistaken to think I’d been stagnant, for in between then and now have been many moves, kids, jobs and stories. I always come back to Jackson Heights though. If 9/11 did anything, it forced me to define where I am from: Here.
—S. Mitra Kalita
Photo: Anthony Fomin
As an immigration reporter, it’s stunning to me how profoundly the event changed the discussion of immigration in this country, and so I’m choosing to reflect on that particular aspect: The changes to immigration weren’t just about new laws or a restructuring of the federal government, though that of course did take place. What has been a perhaps broader and more surreptitious impact has been the shift in public perception, the change in the language that we employ and the concepts that we deploy in discussing immigration in the public sphere. Perhaps this rearrangement is best concretized and exemplified in the way that the immigration processing and enforcement functions that used to be contained in one agency — the Immigration and Naturalization Service — were separated into Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Protection, and the Citizenship and Immigration Services and punted from the Justice Department to the Department of Homeland Security, a newly created behemoth whose Orwellian name denoted a single-minded focus towards national security and counter-terrorism.
Immigration as such, previously talked about through a criminal justice or a labor lens (prior to immigration being in the Justice Department it was under the Department of Labor) became much more about fear, and the feeling that the United States was under constant threat from some sort of nebulous and worldwide enemy, the ubiquitous vision of the new “War on Terror.” This isn’t to say that xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment was anything new; rabid anti-immigrant action and policymaking are as innately American as immigration itself. The difference now was that immigration opponents could describe new arrivals not only as a threat to U.S. jobs or social fabric, or our dominant cultures and ideologies, but a direct, physical threat to regular Americans. When those towers came down 20 years ago, they shattered most Americans’ sense of relative safety in their own home country, and that made even many liberals sign on to a more draconian machinery for regulating who is welcome and who is not.
Photo: Patrick T’Kindt
In practice, this meant the suspicious and war-postured Department of Homeland Security now had purview over not only enforcement but applications and standard processing. The southern border became much more militarized, with the notion of a land barrier and a large standing CBP officer corps — now the largest federal law enforcement agency by far, eclipsing better-known organizations like the FBI and DEA — enjoying almost total bipartisan support in Washington, D.C. In the name of security, vetting became almost comical, to the point that even staunch U.S. allies like Afghan interpreters and others who aided the war effort are being hamstrung by layers of byzantine security checks, a reality that has had grim consequences for their fate following the U.S. military withdrawal. We came to accept things like no-fly lists and the argument that giving driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants would lead to the next 9/11 (a real argument that supposedly serious people made, and which led several states, including New York, to rescind their undocumented populations’ ability to obtain licenses).
Photo: Nitin Mukul
For immigrant communities around the country, the impacts were immediate and painfully discernible. There’s a very strong argument to be made that the DREAM Act would have become the law of the land by 2002 had it not been for 9/11 (the first Senate hearing for the bill was infamously scheduled for September 12, 2001; it was cancelled). The sudden stall in the momentum for immigration reform has hamstrung every subsequent effort, to the point that it is only now, 20 years later, that we are contemplating the real possibility that Congress might build a new pathway to residency and citizenship for the undocumented, the first such amnesty effort since Reagan was president. Muslim communities in particular found themselves the locus of indiscriminate surveillance and suspicion from a host of local, state, and federal authorities. Here in New York, the NYPD notoriously used an intelligence unit to spy on Muslims specifically, a practice that was eventually ruled illegal and spawned a number of lawsuits.
Past doesn’t have to be a prologue in every case. Indeed, the four years of Trump’s indiscriminate and sadistic targeting of immigrants helped jolt a number of people out of the complacency that had set in post-9/11. Americans have come out in large numbers to support refugees and asylum seekers, and the security argument has been losing its edge as the public sees photos of desperate families only wanting to start over, and reads stories about longtime residents and communities swept into the grinder of the immigration enforcement system. As mentioned, we’re closer than we have been in a long time to opening up meaningful pathways to regularization. It seems like, two decades on, we’re finally at the cusp of leaving behind one of 9/11’s more damaging legacies.
—Felipe De La Hoz
When I hear people talk about 9/11, the first question they usually ask is: Where were you on 9/11? People are instantly taken back 20 years ago, and they can vividly remember what they saw, heard and even wore. Yet, many like me also have no recollection of where they were. All I know is that I had just turned two years old, and during that time, I was living in Queens with my parents who had just emigrated from Mexico. All I have from 9/11 is a memory from my mother that has been passed down to me. She was with my aunt watching the scene unfold through the television screen worried about my dad and uncle who were working in Manhattan at the time.
After 9/11, New Yorkers vowed to “never forget” the events that happened that day. When you go downtown and walk through Battery Park City or take a trip to the Oculus, many never forget that the same streets they are walking on were the same streets where people jumped to their deaths. By “never forgetting,” New Yorkers can once again experience the pain and loss that shook the city that day. Now 20 years later, a new generation of New Yorkers has grown up. A generation of New Yorkers who can’t remember what an airport security line looked like before body scanners, a new generation of New Yorkers who go downtown to shop rather than go to a memorial, a new generation of New Yorkers who can’t say “never forget” because there is simply no memory at risk of being forgotten.
Photo: Steve Harvey
9/11 may seem to have become another event in many of Gen-Z’s history textbooks, but 9/11 deeply impacted Gen-Z’s attitudes toward life, money and politics. Gen-Z has not only lived and been exposed to many televised tragedies, but even at parades, airports, and sporting events, because of 9/11, the threat of terrorism at “everyday” events became the norm—perhaps one of the many reasons why its called the “most anxious generation.” The Great Recession followed soon after 9/11, leaving many millenials struggling to pay off college debts and buy first homes, Gen-Z soaking all of this in, has become a generation who is saving up for retirement and investing at much earlier ages than any other generation. Lastly, Gen-Z was born into and grew up in a world where Islamophobia was at an all-time high, and during their formative years the Black Lives Matter movement, the pandemic, and Donald Trump’s presidency all happened, causing them to have passionate political views, whether they be conservative or liberal.
Although there are some memory gaps to fill, 9/11 impacted not only those who remember, but those who can’t. Museums and videos may not be as useful for Gen-Z to understand, but maybe by understanding the unconscious effects 9/11 has had, Gen-Z will finally understand why 9/11 is something people never forget.
I was in my first month of seventh grade on Sept. 11, 2001, a year that in the city where I lived — a suburban, majority Jewish suburb of Cleveland — was meant to be defined only by an excessive amount of bar and bat mitzvahs, not a world-altering tragedy. I recall, on that Tuesday 20 years ago, students gathered around watching the library TV, knowing something was wrong, but like most people, unable to comprehend exactly what. About half of the students’ parents picked them up from school early; I stayed until the last bell rang, feeling slighted that my parents didn’t seem to be as worried about me.
I don’t remember many other specifics from that time. I think I was too young to grasp the magnitude and implications of the day; I don’t think in my sheltered life I had been aware of such evil. Children these days no longer have that luxury. That’s as tragic as anything.
But humans adjust quickly — it’s hard for me to remember a time when there wasn’t a war on terror, a time before the TSA hassled you at the airport (in fact, it didn’t even exist), a time where, I hear, someone else could use your plane ticket, I imagine this pandemic will have a similar impact in the sense that there will be the “before” times and there will be the new normal with a new set of guidelines. And like with 9/11, some of us will remember the before times better than others, and some won’t remember them at all.
There’s something particularly poignant about this anniversary as the country is still reeling from our pullout in Afghanistan, the 20-year war waged in response to the attacks. The lives lost, the resources squandered — and for what?
I was nearly 5 1/2 months pregnant. It was Election Day and my husband was a poll worker, so I left my cell phone with him so he could reach me. I knew a plane had hit one of the towers before I left home since it was on the news, but I was thinking it was a little Cessna, not a jetliner. My husband and I thought it was best to avoid the trains that ran under the World Trade Center. However, my train lost its signal at the City Hall stop and we were told we had to vacate the train and take a bus. (I still have my transfer ticket for Sept 11. 2001 punched out). When I got above ground, it was chaotic. People were just walking in the street, and there was no bus to be found. I headed in the direction of the Brooklyn Bridge, thinking I would just walk back home. That is when I heard a rumble.
I started to run. Out of nowhere, a pair of hands pulled me into a doorway. It was a doorman who saw a heavily pregnant woman whom he thought was going to get knocked over. He said, “The building fell.” I asked, “What building?” He said, “The World Trade Center.” I got a brain chill. I knew I would never get home. I managed to get into a cab sometime later that was already occupied by a woman from Carnarsie. The driver was from Flatbush. I lived in Prospect Heights. We picked up one more man to have a full cab to be allowed to go through the midtown tunnel. They had stopped outgoing traffic and were only letting in emergency responders. It took us about 12 hours to get to Brooklyn. I went all that time without peeing. My fingers swelled up and my wedding ring had to be cut off the next day. All I knew was I had to get home to save myself and my baby. We had the opportunity to move abroad shortly after for work and I jumped at the chance. I just did not feel safe.
—Kim Barrington Narisetti
On Sept. 11th 2001, I was just starting sophomore year in high school. My uncle Kevin, my dad’s brother, worked in the World Trade Center. After leaving school early, I sat on the floor of my bedroom trying to call my family to see if he was okay. The phone lines were a mess and it took me until that evening to get through. Thankfully, his penchant for being late saved him from being inside his office, but unfortunately not from experiencing some of the traumatizing experience of running for his life with many others that day. After that, every Sunday he’d come to my grandmother’s home in Queens and sit at the kitchen table, recounting his experience on Sept. 11. Sadly, like many others who were there, he ultimately got sick with cancer and passed away several years later. I can’t think about that day without thinking of my uncle and not only the lives lost, but the pieces of lives it took.
I was nine years old and was getting ready for school in Bakersfield, Ca., when I watched the first plane hit the north tower on the news. It was Mom’s birthday, and I remember her sending me to school in tears, where teachers greeted us with the same emotions displayed on their faces. The news was playing in our classroom, and my teacher did his best to try and explain the gravity of the situation. I was too young to grasp the entirety of what had happened on 9/11, but I knew from the reaction of my parents and teachers that they had never witnessed a tragedy of that magnitude in their lives. I could not comprehend how these men they called terrorists traveled all this way to hurt people they had never met.
Looking back, it was the first time I became aware of the violence that existed in the world. Twenty years later, I still have a hard time wrapping my mind around the events that took place. Over the years I’ve learned the stories of those who perished and those who survived and live with the trauma from that day. I’ve also learned the stories of how people came together and put aside their differences to unite this country. 9/11 was a true test of the American spirit and a reminder of how precious life is. May we continue to honor those we loved and lost 20 years ago.
I am from New York City: born and raised, as they say. I was born in 1998, so I’m at the cusp of those who either don’t remember the attack or were born after it. I don’t remember that day; I was around 2 years old. However, I feel a deep sorrow whenever I think about those who lost their lives in the attack on the World Trade Center. I also mourn for the people who were lost in the wars that followed. It saddens me to know that such a devastating event led not to healing, but to more destruction.
It almost feels like everyone from NYC or those who lived here in 2001 know someone who died that day. The woman who sold my parents their car insurance and a bond broker and colleague of my dad were both working in the North tower when it fell.
I have also heard about a lot of close calls related to the attacks on 9/11. My mom had a meeting at the World Trade Center on Sept. 10, not even 24 hours before the first plane hit the North tower. The head of the brokerage firm that my dad’s colleague worked at should have been at the World Trade Center on the morning of Sept. 11. However, it was his son’s first day of preschool so he skipped work for the morning to drop him off.
My dad grew up in Brooklyn and has spent the majority of his life in NYC. I asked him to tell me what he remembers from that day and the time that followed. He recounted hearing about the crash and walking home from midtown Manhattan, fearing that more attacks on the city could follow. He was not alone in that thinking. He said, “The streets were quiet but not empty” as masses of people left their offices to walk home. My dad told me how he sat in Central Park with a friend he had run into. He described how the 5th Avenue bus was running downtown, but turned around at 14th Street: “The city kept running. It didn’t stop.”
While I was not yet born on 9/11, my father worked in one of the towers. On the day of the attacks, he decided not to go to work due to a terrible headache. Nearly 3,000 others were not as fortunate. 9/11 definitely was a low moment for NYC. The aftermath was no better. The casualties from the polluted air and destruction created issues for many; some even go as far as to say the casualties from the attack were worse in the aftermath. Diseases like cancer killed so many people to the point where those deaths have likely outnumbered the deaths from the actual attack. Not to mention, Muslims faced immense racism. It’s been so many years; you’d expect things to be better at this point but still, the illogical idea that all Muslims are terrorists persists in far too many peoples’ minds. As a child from an immigrant household, I, firsthand, have seen so much racism directed our way. Sometimes it is more subtle such as stares while at other times it is far more outright and aggressive.
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I was getting ready to leave for a job interview in Manhattan from my apartment in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn. My roommate happened to have the TV on, we did not have cable, just the major network news. We saw that a plane had hit the first tower but we didn’t think that was yet a cause for panic. Then the second one was hit and we knew this was not an accident. My mom managed to call me, but the phone lines were gone soon after. At least she knew I was safe. Instead of going to the city I took my video camera and rode my bike to the hill in Sunset Park where I could see the towers and the smoke. Later that day ashes started settling on my car. I had an art studio in the neighborhood of DUMBO, which was relatively undeveloped at the time. Standing outside there a day later, 18-wheeler trucks were going by carrying crushed cars and other smoldering debris which was being deposited somewhere near the waterfront which is now a beautiful city park. The burning smell of that debris was palpable. The painting I made here references both the parking garage bombing at the World Trade Center (1993) and the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995. “From the first hours after the (Oklahoma) bombing was reported, and before any information was found to link it to any person or group, the media played on the fears and prejudices of Americans by blaming the crime on foreigners, specifically Middle Eastern Muslim terrorists.” (The Minnesota Dail)