On September 11, 2001, I went shopping. I didn’t pull close to loved ones, I didn’t strive to understand, to educate, to do anything other than watch the twin towers burn, then get in the car and drive out to the suburbs to buy baby clothes.
I was hugely pregnant, full of expectancy. That September morning my friend and I drove in silence, listening to endless radio descriptions of the devastation. Arriving at the store we found that it was, unsurprisingly, closed. People were burning in New York, the lives of hundreds of thousands more were already numbered as the war gears in Washington churned into action, and we two pregnant woman stared into the window and could not quite understand why the store was not open for us after all, this horrible tragedy was happening so far away.
I am not a shopper, never have been, and really, this tale is not about shopping. It is about knowledge and responsibility, bearing witness and being engaged with the world beyond our own doorstep. In this, it is a story about how I failed, and about how many of us fail day after day to recognize that we are part of a larger humanity. And, too often when we do recognize the injustice in the world, regularly perpetrated by the hands of our own government, we remain mute. We listen to the radio, shake our heads in disbelief and anger, and then go shopping.
Truth is, I’d been tuning out, in slow progression, for many years, as I became increasingly cynical and wrapped up in my own life. I wanted the best for my child, just like any parent. However, I failed to recognize that I not only hold responsibility for my own, but for all. I failed to see how the best for my own child has nothing to do with baby clothes, and everything to do with confronting our fears, fostering human connection, and building solidarity across fault lines of race, class, gender, nationality, religion. It has everything to do with recognizing the continuity between one’s own family and our responsibility towards the creation of a loving human family.
I view my shopping trip on September 11th as a personal failure, but I also increasingly see how the failure was not just my own, but one that lives in each of us. As long as we allow the existence of near and far, of nation-states, and borders as long as we stay within our own zone of knowledge, comfort, and understanding, those fault lines will remain. Fault lines that crack and splinter, rifts that eventually rupture to tear us apart. What will it take for us to see humanity as a whole, rather than as subdivided entities, as “us” and “them,” as one or another person being wronged?
We are all wronged until we are able to collectively recognize and articulate the continuity of tragedy, which stretched long before September 11th, and lives on today in Iraq, in Niger, in the destroyed lives of New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. This continuity of tragedy is fueled by Martin Luther King’s interrelated triple evils of poverty, racism, and war, and by each of our blindness and indifference to our role in this poisonous relationship. In his Beyond Vietnam address, King spoke of the need to send a message to the world, one of longing, of hope, of solidarity, and commitment: “The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.” This is a choice that requires we do more than bring our bodies to the streets as we did on February 15, 2003, and then retreat back within our own lives, back to our own form of shopping trips for baby clothes.
Not long ago I had a dream in which I was searching for an orb, a smooth, unfractured sphere for a wholeness that I, and we, have not yet achieved. As I searched, I became increasingly fearful that I wouldn’t be able to find this orb, or perhaps that if I did, I would not have the strength or courage to carry it home. For to find that orb, and hold it in our hands with awe and reverence, requires that we take action. We must bring our bodies to the streets on September 24, 2005, and then keep them there as we each strive to understand, to educate, and to express not only our outrage but also our love. The “time to break silence” is now.
ELISA SALASIN is an educator in Berkeley, California. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can view a short film based on a previous version of this essay on her blog: Two Feet In (http://twofeetin.typepad.com/elisa/)