by Sharon Maeda
On September 11, 2001, I lived in New York City. Twenty years later, my mind is still full of so many random memories and emotions, just as it was back then.
In the hours following the attacks, millions of people were trying to contact loved ones. Phone services were overtaxed and everyone was frantic. No one could get in or out of Manhattan; the subways were shut down. I was stuck in a suburban New York Marriott hotel with colleagues at a conference. The Marriott had a policy that when one hotel is attacked, all their neighboring hotels go into lockdown. I was panicked out of my mind. I had no idea where my niece was on her first day of work in New York. Hours later, her mother in Seattle was able to reach me and report that Lea was safe and walking home from Midtown to my place in Washington Heights. At some point, she abandoned her heels and walked all the way up to 190th barefooted.
Early on, no one understood the source of the terrorism or could have imagined a 20-year war.
There were so many stories of loss, bringing back other memories — or just plain relief. Weeks later, back at the office I ran into a colleague from another agency. I saw the anguish on her face. Six years earlier, her husband had been killed in the Oklahoma City bombing along with 34 other colleagues at the Office of Indian Affairs of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. That was the result of domestic terrorism. We just stood in that hallway and hugged with no words between us.
A colleague had two young adult sons who worked at the World Trade Center. That day, one was home sick and the other was running late and about to cross the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan as the first tower was hit.
As the shock began to turn to pain, it also turned to unity. Prompted by a local radio announcer, New Yorkers were encouraged to go outside, light a candle, and stand in silence at dusk. Neighbors who had never seen each other were hugging and exchanging phone numbers. The Sisters of Cabrini came out and walked across the street to join us. It had been a constant topic of discussion whether anyone actually lived in that Mother Cabrini Shrine, since none of us had ever seen the Sisters before that night.
Our agency included the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), which was as well-known in the global south as the Red Cross. Within weeks, $17 million of unsolicited donations poured in. Two donations stood out: $500 and change sent from a poor community in sub-Saharan Africa, where normally we made grants to them, and $50,000 from a sporting goods company that we had been boycotting for bad labor practices.
As tragic as 9/11 was, it was not our job to rebuild Wall Street. Instead, we put funds into programs for the Puerto Rican and Chinese neighborhoods just outside the zone receiving FEMA and other federal funds. And we funded projects across the country that built relationships with Arab, Muslim, Sikh, and other communities who were being blamed and victimized by post-9/11 hysteria.
“It’s safe!” said then New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Three weeks afterwards, I ran out of medicinal herbs that I could only buy in Chinatown. The lower Manhattan subways stopped short of the area, so I walked; by the time I reached within eight blocks of Chinatown, I started coughing and it got harder and harder to breathe. As I walked, I looked up at the tall buildings where only the lower floors had been power-hosed while the upper floors were still covered in toxic dust. We now know the results of all that toxic dust ingested by first responders and workers in the area. For many, health care and compensation came too late. Forgotten were the elderly who lived nearby or the 4,000+ Chinatown sweatshop workers who lost their jobs but kept going back to try to find work.
Twenty years later, we are not faced with a one-day attack from one terrorist organization from one nation. In many ways, we are safer and wiser. But at the same time, we are faced with domestic terrorism like never before. As we remember 9/11, we have a lot of work to do to combat this kind of terrorism all around us. From those who attacked the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, to those who have attacked Black Lives Matter activists, Asian elders on the street, Indigenous women, and Latinx workers to those who are tampering with many of our constitutional rights from women’s right to control their bodies to the sacred right to vote — make no mistake, we are under attack.
Overwhelmed? Don’t be. We really couldn’t do anything about the 9/11 terrorist attack. We can do something to make our communities safer and we can tell the truth and debunk the “word terrorism” that permeates social media along with disinformation, misinformation, and downright fabricated screeds. We can organize, organize, organize. There are more nonprofit organizations per square foot here than anywhere else in the country, and many are focused on justice, especially in BIPOC communities. We can use our time and resources for justice.
We can participate in every election to ensure that our votes don’t get diluted by discriminatory redistricting; right now, for the first time ever, anyone can go online and submit your ideas for redistricting. You can vote in every election and make sure a racist or misogynistic candidate is not elected. And these days, we need to thank the ever-increasing list of first responders. Who ever thought that election workers would become victims of domestic terrorism?
Thom Hartman likes to end his radio program with “democracy is not a spectator sport.” It was never more true than today. We have a daily job to be vigilant with regard to domestic terrorism in all its forms.
Sharon Maeda, the Emerald’s planning director, was associate general secretary for communications at the global mission board of the United Methodist Church in New York City on September 11, 2001.
📸 Featured Image: A New York gallery window tribute to fallen first responders. (Photo: Sharon Maeda)
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