Today is the 12th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and everyone I know is talking and thinking about them.
I am generally considered a fairly calm, reasonable person in crisis. Most who know me would say that I am very level-headed, and not inclined to make decisions in anger.
But twelve years ago today, I felt like this. Fear set in later, but in the first few hours there was nothing but the bloodwrath. I remember saying, at around this hour of the day, to one of the co-workers with whom I was on a field trip, "Someone did this to us. I want the people who planned this dead. I want to find them, and I want to bomb them until they are a sheet of glass in the desert, until they and everything they love are reduced to rubble. I want to do it with my hands."
A few days passed, and my pain and temper cooled, and I was able to read the stories and marvel at who we became in that moment. Everyone knows the stories of first responders running into danger and giving their lives to save others, and over a decade later I remain in awe of those who listened to final calls from their brothers on the line and still ran into the fire. There are other stories, too, that have filtered out. Two men lifting up a woman in a wheelchair to carry her down flights of stairs, so that she and the people trapped behind her made it out alive. Total strangers stopping to lend an arm or a moment, supporting someone who'd faltered. As I watched the news reports, I could see people in the background staggering to reach safety and other people running up to help them. The passengers of Flight 93, who died in a field in Pennsylvania rather than sit passively and let themselves be used as weapons. People opening their homes and businesses to the stranded and the frightened, huddling around televisions looking for sense, for meaning, for familiar faces among the survivors. So many people, reaching for the small heroisms within their sphere of influence, affirming humanity and empathy in the face of terror.
I watched as the world reached out, and said, "Oh. Oh, we are so sorry. This is terrible, and we weep for your pain." We set politics aside, we set old fights aside, and for one moment in time we embraced a shared and common humanity.
However, I cannot forget that if the gods had granted me the power of life and death twelve years ago today, I'd have rained down the fury of my own pain and anguish on anyone I felt was responsible, whether I had proof, whether I had justification. In that moment, in my wounded rage, I would have gladly accepted whatever the cost to become a dark avatar of furious vengeance. That is my lesson, that I must be profoundly grateful that the gods did NOT choose to endow me that day with the power of life and death, and that I must always be mindful of the emotions influencing my decisions.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, a lot of decisions were made. Sweeping restrictions of free speech and privacy were enacted, laws were passed trading privacy for the illusion of safety, and individual people targeted people in their own communities for retaliation. A sidewalk bench through a coffeeshop window. Hateful graffiti on a mosque wall. Vicious threats against a Muslim community center. Women in hijab were harassed while shopping or walking down the street, and dark-skinned men were greeted with suspicion and hostility.
My rage passed, and with it my desire for vengeance. My fear passed, and with it my need to be protected.
I look around, twelve years on, and see that there are people in this country who still allow that rage and fear to divide us. I see Islamophobic rhetoric, I see militant Christian propaganda, I see warmongering in the name of crushing the Other, and all I can think is that while I'm glad the gods did not give me the power to destroy everything I touched that day, to abandon every guiding principle I cherish in the name of blind obedience to my demons, I wish that perhaps they had not given that power to my fellow Americans, or that more powerful voices among us had been wise enough not to use it.
Resist vengeance, my loves. Acknowledge your rage and let it pass through you without leaving its footprints in your heart. If you are frightened, be frightened but never let fear make your decisions for you. Take time, when emotions are high, to fully understand before you act. We all carry the potential to be dark avatars of rage and destruction, and we carry the potential to be voices of calm and reasoned response to crisis.
In every moment, in times of crisis and times of respite, we are given choices that indulge one side or the other. Small choices: "I will not snap nastily at the barista who has screwed up my latte for the fourth time in a row." Large choices: "I will not hit that person with my car." The more power you have, the more capacity you have to make those choices: "I will not drop nuclear weapons on every suspected al Qaeda stronghold in the world."
The greater your power, the greater your consequences. Be glad, my friends, that my rage did not find its vengeance, and be hopeful that the echoes of those that did will fade in time.
I love you all.