I was in a classroom, beginning an ill-fated MBA program when I heard the news. The program's director came in and gave us an brief overview of what was happening -- the World Trade Center had been hit by two planes, the Pentagon was on fire -- and told us the rest of the day was cancelled.
I immediately tried to find out more from the internet -- we had computers in the classroom -- but every news site was down, swamped by other panicked people like myself needing desperately to know what was going on. The old ways of distributing information work better in this type of situation. As I wandered out into the lobby of the office building where the class was being held, some people were setting up a TV on a large stand, tuned to CNN. And finally I could see the horror for myself. I stood there in a large crowd for twenty minutes, listening to the dribble of real news beyond the images, until the first tower dropped. Then I'd had enough, I wanted to go home.
I was overcome by anger and worry. My worry at the time was not for the people who had died, and were dying, and their families; it was for the future. I assumed the attacks were the work of militant Islam, and worried what would happen next. There had been repeated sniping and ankle-biting of the United States for years up until that point, and the US had been content to mostly ignore it. But this couldn't be ignored. I worried that the US would fall to a spirit of retribution, a new xenophobia, and a blind hatred to match that of the attackers. I worried that the US would lose its temper.
And I was wrong. There were no crowds shouting for blood of Arabs. No one made broad accusations, just speculations with clear . While it was generally understood that militant Islam was most likely behind the attacks, Muslims as a whole could not be blamed. The anger felt by many was not directed outwards blindly, but instead was channeled into resolve. The White House thought as I did, and made it a priority in the days after September 11th to appear with Muslim leaders and assure the country that Islam was not their enemy. But I don't think it was necessary -- and I'm glad. If the events that day can't inspire Americans to the hate that is too frequently seen in the Middle East, nothing can.
Five years on, I think things have gone better than they might have. Two countries have been liberated, and though both still have enemies to fight, they are much better off than they would be had they still been tyrannies. Just because there were no TV cameras to capture it, no one should doubt that pre-war Afghanistan and Iraq were brutal violent places.
What worries me most is that many seem to have forgotten who the enemy is. Five years ago the world had a chance to see the hate that is motivating so many. The hijackers were not an aberration, they were part of a movement that thrives all over the world. They want to kill, and they have been killing. And if they get a nuclear weapon, they will use it. They cannot be reasoned with, accomodated, contained or controlled. They can only be confronted and fought. But too many in our comfortable part of the world would prefer just to go back to sleep.