Today is the 10th Anniversary of 9/11. I still remember the day vividly. I experienced it from my rooftop in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Yet, nowadays the emotions I feel when I think of the events are much more complex than the loss I initially felt for the 2,819 people who died and the families who lost loved ones.
Since that fateful day, the United States has initiated a war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The latter was based on lies and has caused the deaths of over 100,000 Iraqis through an illegal invasion and the resulting violence. None of this diminishes the shock of 9/11 but it does inform a more complex understanding of the emotions that began with those events and continue to evolve, even today.
I distinctly remember that for a while we all thought the world had changed. Terror seemed to hide in every corner and our paranoia got the better of us. We realized in time that this wasn’t the case. Eventually our lives moved on and one horrible attack did not an era make. The events of 9/11 also taught us about the power of images and the media, which played a huge (and mostly negative) role in amplifying the terror into something ominous that dominated the public imagination.
For weeks the images of the Twin Towers played endlessly on screens and our inboxes overflowed with jpeg attachments or links to images that showed the devastation in different ways. Some of the images were racist or Islamophobic, others were touching and documentary. I shot the photos I posted at the top of this post the day of 9/11 and created the image you see a few days later in order to email it to everyone I knew.
There was something important for me in the witnessing of the events through my camera lens. The day began for me when I heard on a local public radio station that the World Trade Center was reportedly on fire. I rushed to the roof of my loft building and was shocked to see the second plane hit the second tower followed by a fireball that burst from the side of the building. At the time, I wasn’t exactly sure what I was seeing. I ran down to my loft to get my camera, wake my neighbors, and I returned to document the scene.
It was a surreal day.
I remember standing on the roof with the people from my floor as we joked about what it could be, not imagining it was as serious as it looked — it must have been a defense mechanism. When we watched the first tower collapse, the humor stopped. I saw the second tower fall on a neighbor’s television downstairs, where I was sitting in the midst of a much needed break from watching one of the city’s tallest buildings disintegrate.
A few days later, my neighbor and I convinced some army personnel to allow us past the military checkpoints on 14th Street, Houston and Canal. We ventured there to take photos. We felted an urge to see the debris — or as much as we could — with our own eyes.
The months and years that immediately followed 9/11 was a strange period, full of shadowy fears and we all have our stories. In 2002, I was forced into the US government’s xenophobic NSEERS program because of the fact that I was born in Syria, even though I’m a Canadian citizen. I was prohibited from leaving the country through LaGuardia and many other airports, ports and border crossings and I had to arrive at JFK or Newark at least three hours before my flight to register each time. Ever time I returned to the United States I had to register again with INS, which took a whole day of waiting in lines in downtown Manhattan alongside people who were just as afraid and angry as I was at this senselss bureaucracy. It caused a great deal of stress and frustration for me at the time, and it pushed me to the point that I didn’t want to leave the country anymore, even to see my family in Canada. During this period the infamous Maher Arar case took place. A Syrian/Canadian national, like me, he was traveling through JFK on his way home to Canada from a vacation in Tunisia when US authorities inexplicably sent him to Syria. There he was tortured until he was eventually released. These were irrational times.
Today, a decade has officially passed and hopefully we have learned a great deal about ourselves, our society and what we are capable of overcoming. Today’s Required Reading is about 9/11 and the power of images.
Required Reading is published every Sunday morning, and it is comprised of a short list of art-related links (10 or less — though this time we exceeded that limit) to long-form articles, videos, blog posts or photo essays worth a second look.
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