On a Severe Clear Day

Severe Clear: It’s an aviation term used to describe a day so bright and clear with unhindered visibility for miles.

That’s what it was like September 11, 2001. Blue skies. Not a cloud to be seen. The weather was perfect on the northeastern seaboard. A perfect day to travel. To fly.

September 10, Midnight.

The flight back from Southern California was long—especially with two toddlers even if there were four adults between them. The luggage missed the connection. Car seats will show up later on our front lawn. But our friends were waiting at the gate to cart us all home. The last time we will ever be greeted like that in an airport.

September 11

8:30 a.m.

I should have been in the office 30 minutes ago. I’m not running this errand Hoosh asked me to run—the traffic is too choked in the direction I need to go. I turn around and head to work. A perfect day to drive and our brand new minivan is a comfortable ride.

Sometime before 9 a.m.

Booting up my Mac. Getting my stuff settled for the day. Loving the windows in my office that let the bright morning light in. Our maintenance guy Don comes on the loudspeaker to say there was a plane crash at the World Trade Center in New York City. Sometime like that happened in Texas a few weeks ago. Some guy in a Cessna had a heart attack mid-flight and clipped a building. That’s probably what happened. Poor pilot.

Laverne comes by my door looking at me quizzically. Should we check this out? Denise’s office has a TV and we have the keys because she’s not in today. We head down the hallway, unlock her door, and flip on the set to NBC and the Today Show. Katie Couric is reporting and we see an image of the first tower hit billowing plumes of smoke. I can’t tell how big that plane was. Why was a little prop plane flying so high? Katie and Matt Lauer don’t know what’s going on. They are relying on a helicopter flying nearby to tell them something.

9:03 a.m.

Then we gasp and scream at the same time. We just saw a commercial jet slam into the South Tower. This is not an accident, I say. This has to be a terrorist.

Between then and 10 a.m.

We watch in disbelief. Laverne is from New Jersey. She needs to call people. I need to tell someone. I call my parents in California and though it is 6 a.m., I wake them up and tell them to flip the TV on right now.

The towers hold a lot of meaning for our family. We were New Yorkers for a time and those buildings were where we took visiting friends and family. We’d ride the super-fast elevators to the observation deck and stand outside for pictures. Over 100 stories in the sky. Forty-some years later and I still can feel the wind whip through my five-year-old hair.

I call my husband and tell him to find out where his brother is. The brother that works in lower Manhattan. I tell him what happens. He tells me he’s driving and will call him and tell his parents. He says he’s driving by the Pentagon and will be at his office soon.

After 10 a.m.

Everyone is in the office now. We head to an empty room with a much larger TV set up and watch and watch and watch. We see bodies drop to the earth until the cameras stopped showing that. We see people hanging out of windows trying to escape the unbearable heat from burning jet fuel. We see anchors and reporters and people on the street trying to make sense of what is happening.

The camera cuts to images of the Pentagon. It has been hit by another plane. We hear there are more planes hitting buildings. Then no planes hitting buildings. Fighter jets are up and they will shoot planes down if they have to. I call my parents again. We are hearing we need to stay off phone lines because they are getting jammed with the nation trying to call each other. Call people on the planes. Call anyone to tell them they love them. I say I might not be able to call for a while, but we are ok.

We are watching and witnessing and can’t comprehend what we are seeing. And then the South tower implodes. But there are still people in there. They didn’t get out. The firefighters and cops. They could not have made it down the stairs yet!

The clouds of debris and dust and particles of life blow through the streets and people run. Reporters and the cameramen try to go on until they are overpowered by the maelstrom, some knocked to their knees while they attempt to keep doing their jobs.

We are watching a horror film.

And then the second tower comes down. And we know more people have not made it out. Will never make it out.

Parents leave to pick up children from school. We are under no apparent threat a mere 30 minutes from Washington, D.C., but no one knows for sure. Will there be bombings next? Will this severe clear sky today soon be peppered with jets from a foreign nation raining down hell on our peaceful suburbs? It felt like anything could happen.

We find out a plane went down in Pennsylvania. I call my aunt who lives near Pittsburgh to see if it was near her. It wasn’t.

The reporters speculate that this plane was shot down. A plane full of civilians. In the United States of America. Then we hear that was not true. But a plane of civilians is lost.

We hear the President has been flying around in Air Force One and no one will report exactly where he is, for good reason. We all know people working in DC. And we start to hear about the mass evacuations from around the capital and the snipers now seen on the roofs.

My husband is ok. What was bearing down on the Pentagon was in his rearview mirror. But he did not see it.

By 1 p.m. they tell us all to just go home.

1:30 p.m.

The roads are so empty. And the blue sky is so empty. The flight path to Baltimore Washington International Airport crosses my commute home. There is always a Southwest jet in the sky coming in lower and lower on its descent to land. But not that day.

My toddler is napping on a blanket on the floor of our living room when I get home. My mother-in-law has the TV on and now we look at the smoky debris of what was once the World Trade Center twin towers. I see the skeletal remains of the entrance we’d walk into, the place we’d buy our tickets for the observation deck on our sightseeing missions. I watch my daughter sleeping—not quite two years old. What is this world we have brought her into? What will it be for her now? I’m scared.

Hoosh comes home in the afternoon. His brother fled Manhattan on foot—he was not near the towers. He crossed the Brooklyn Bridge and then was able to catch the train to Long Island.

Nighttime

We’ve watched coverage all day and into the night. We’re not sure what the plan is for work the next day. We are in shock. I worry about retaliation against people of Middle-Eastern descent because Hoosh is from Iran. Will this be like 1941 again? As they sift through this horrific terror, will they isolate people from that part of the world into camps as they did with the Japanese? I vow that my Indian self will go wherever he goes, that my family will stay intact. All feelings of security in these United States are gone at the moment. I don’t know how or where we go from here.

In bed, we sometimes hear the din of planes flying overhead. Tonight when I hear one I forget for a moment. Until I remember it’s a fighter jet patrolling DC airspace now.

20 Years Later

In the days and months and years to follow, the pieces came together. We found out who and why. We learned of people we knew or were somewhat connected to who perished that day. An entire family in my neighborhood—on American #77. The brother of a childhood friend who was in one of the towers on his first day of a new job. We heard of the near misses—people who were late to work that day, my sister’s friend who made it out in time. We learned to take our shoes off in airports and ditch our bottles of water before security. We say goodbye to our loved ones at curbs or security.

And in 2011 there was retribution on a compound in Pakistan. But not before 20 years spent on a war that hasn’t delivered a more peaceful world for anyone.

What has changed since? Everything and everyone.

Because of a severe clear day in September.

America Doesn’t Exist in a Vacuum: Part 1

This is part 1 of a discussion I had with Leonie, a German political, historical, and cultural social media creator and graduate student in American Studies. After watching one of her(very accurate) posts I was immediately interested in her observations about our (completely nutty) politics in light of Biden’s recent inauguration and the events of the past four years leading up to it. Leonie’s insights are astute and very telling; something Americans would be well served to pay attention to.

What does everyone think of me?” Aaahh the question of a million middle and high schoolers navigating puberty, growth, change, and the next steps that lay ahead of them. It’s a question important to people of that age, though the older influences in their lives try to impart the futility of caring too much about the answers. But you still want to know. Sometimes you find out that the issues about yourself you were so worried about aren’t even registering with others. Other times you discover there are many things you need to pay more attention to.

It’s not that different in the life of a nation. Especially if your name is the United States of America. Though the administration of the last four years tried to pretend America stood alone with no reason to care about other countries sharing this planet, those very countries have indeed cared about what we were doing. And they have been watching.

Is the United States of America still regarded as an everlasting bastion of democracy on the world stage? What have the last four years done to our reputation? Read on to find out.

Wilo:

So, where did your interest in America, American culture, and our politics and history come from? Why pursue graduate work in American Studies?

Leonie:

The reason I’m doing what I’m doing is probably influenced by the pop cultural influences I had as a kid and teenager. Our pop culture in Germany is heavily influenced by American pop culture. I learned English from watching American shows streamed in English and not being afraid to speak it. The older I got, I got an emotional connection and spent some time in the U.S. I took part in a jazz music exchange twice as a teenager. But as I grew older and became more politically active and just political in general, I of course had an interest in the political side of the country I was so fascinated with.

Wilo:

What’s been the perception of the United States and its politics in Germany?

Leonie:

[Speaking of the Trump years for example], what a lot of Trump supporters making comments to my content just don’t get is that what Trump did not just affect the United States. Pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord affected us. All of the sudden, in a matter of days, pulling troops out of Germany affected us. Germany stores weapons for the United States and the history and the relationship of these two countries just makes it impossible to think the U.S. just exists in a vacuum.

I can’t speak to how Germany in general perceives the United States but thinking of the Obama administration or Obama running for president and the pop cultural influences and all that. It all played into this idealized perception of America. Now the more you get involved in that, the more research you do, the more people you meet, it gets clearer that this is not the case, but this is also what gets me.

Wilo:

What is the news cycle like in Germany in terms of covering American politics?

Leonie:

The major headlines do make their way over to Germany. German news works very differently than it does in the United States. We do have news channels, but they are in no way, shape, or form comparable with American news organizations. We do have publicly funded television and publicly funded news, which are very matter of fact. I would say it covers 50% German news and 50% from around the world, and the U.S. is in there.

Wilo:

Let’s talk about when Donald Trump first burst on to the political scene and announced his run for president. Did you keep track of that?

Leonie:

Yeah, absolutely back then. I was doing my bachelor’s work so was already very interested in all of that. We did follow and I think it was similar to what most Democrats and a lot of Republicans felt at the time: that no one should take him seriously. We’re not taking him seriously. Then it got to the point where he was the Republican nominee and we saw this. Now with the German history we see things through that lens and can see a certain rhetoric. I know it worried us for sure, because we’ve seen this, and we’ve seen this from the right-wing party in Germany. We’ve seen that you don’t even have to win the race to shift the political discourse.

We’ve seen this in Germany now. They are a minority but through existing in the public discourse they have brought back a rhetoric that was deemed unacceptable before. And that is what we saw during the Trump candidacy. And that was what really worried us—that people all of a sudden felt comfortable saying racist, homophobic, ableist, sexist, misogynistic things in public.

Wilo:

When you woke up to the November 9, 2016 news that Trump had won, what was your reaction, and that of the German public that you could see?

Leonie:

So, this year we didn’t have a viewing event at the university in the American Studies department, which is something do every presidential election, except for during a global pandemic. [In 2016], I stayed until 11 or midnight and I was really emotionally exhausted. I went to bed relatively early that night because I knew it was going to take some time. But I went to bed feeling optimistic because at that point, Hillary Clinton was still in the lead. I felt like, you know what? I’m going to wake up tomorrow morning and the U.S. is going to have its first female president. This is awesome. But then there as already this voice in my saying, don’t be so sure.

I woke up pretty early the next morning and grabbed the remote control to turn on the TV, only to see the last few electoral votes coming in that pushed Trump over the finish line. And I started crying because I knew that this affected so many people. I remember I saw the other day in my archives, something I posted on Instagram that has been so shockingly true. I posted something like people are going to lose their insurance, their healthcare, their lives, their dignity, their homes, their safety. I didn’t know I was going to be that right. I wish I wasn’t.

That morning I had to go to a seminar on American politics or American institutions or something like that. And overall in the department it was very, very, quiet. You could feel there we were all in collective shock. So, I can only imagine what it felt like in the U.S.

Stay tuned for Part 2!

Unpacking All Lives Matter

Years ago, when I first heard the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” my first thoughts went something like this: “Well yeah, of course they do. But all lives matter.” I think I even posted something from my Christian perspective along the lines of “We are all really lucky that we all matter to Christ because we’re all walking around here acting dumb a lot of times.” I thought I was being helpful.

But really, I was ignorant. Thankfully, I have since learned the error of my reasoning.

The words Black Lives Matter have been a rallying cry since they first became prevalent in national and international dialogue. But especially in America, they have stirred up two groups of people on decidedly opposite sides of the proverbial fence. When Black people and their allies hear those words, they are a call to justice for senseless violence against members of the Black community. These three words are literally asking, “Is the life of a Black human being not worthy of value and protection?

Unfortunately, and I don’t know how to say this except for bluntly, certain others hear those same words, and can’t or won’t utter them without immediately following up with “all lives matter.” While “All Lives Matter” as a statement is not factually incorrect, it is ignorant. And as any student of history well knows, ignorance only fans the flames of racism.

Black lives, brown lives, and the lives of every hue constitute all lives. But if one of the groups of lives is left out, the word “all” can’t be used. One would have to say “Some Lives Matter” or “Not All Lives Matter.” Which, since we’re being honest, is exactly the problem in these United States. And that’s essentially what’s being said here. When one group of people has to educate their sons and daughters on how to protect themselves from the police (you know, the ones who are supposed to protect said sons and daughters), while other groups of people don’t even have to think about that, the scales are tipped. When violence and broken educational and correctional systems work against one group in great disproportion, the lives impacted are not mattering. In simpler terms? You cannot have a dozen donuts if one donut is missing. You cannot have a perfect rainbow if orange is missing. You cannot have a five-point star if one point is missing. Do you see where I’m going with this? If Black people are facing more injustice, discrimination, and police brutality than others—systematically and historically—their lives are not mattering.

“But,” cry out those who just cannot bring themselves to agree with those facts, “why do we have to pay attention to just the Black lives? Isn’t that racist to favor one group? If we said, “White Lives Matter, everyone would say that was racist.” Well, you see here, white lives in America have always mattered. You just don’t have to verbalize it. The very systems that have built and sustained this nation were designed by white people, with white people in mind, and have historically worked in favor of white people. Considering that this country was built on the backs of Black people, literally, and has been further strengthened by an intellectual and tactile work force of immigrants from every nation on earth, that systemic framework stinks.

The notion of white supremacy is not American made, though it made America. How else do you explain British, Spanish, Dutch, and Portuguese men sailing to Africa thinking they had the right to kidnap, traffic, and sell HUMAN BEINGS to other white men? How do you explain denying human rights to a group of people in treating them like animals to be bred and abused? To destroy their family structures and deny them education, healthcare, and the right to practice their cultures and traditions and religion? The only prerequisite to this vile and abhorrent blight on human history: skin color. Not only is that the impetus for slavery, that stupid notion is the backbone of colonization (a whole other blog post, just you wait).

In the United States, the Emancipation Proclamation made slavery illegal. But the abolition of slavery just led to systemic and concerted efforts to keep black people from claiming their stake in their country. The terror inflicted by the original domestic terrorists, The Ku Klux Klan, lynching, Jim Crow, White Citizens Councils, corrupt police forces, Redlining, right on up to even the subtlest of discriminatory practices today is the legacy of that evil.

When God said He made human beings in His image, He meant it. All of us. Equal. So, when Black people are denied equality and protection throughout multifaceted levels of American life to the point of loss of life? All lives are not mattering.

Do you remember attorney Jake Brigance’s closing arguments in the film A Time to Kill? In his defense of a black father who avenged the kidnapping and rape of his 9-year-old daughter by two grown white men, Brigance asked the jury to close their eyes and listen to a story. In the story, he painfully recounted the disturbing details of the assault of this little girl. It visibly shook most people in the courtroom that day. When he was finished, all he said was this: “Now, imagine the girl was white.”

All it took was this shift of perspective to set the all-white jury on a path away from convicting the child’s father. A Black child horrifically assaulted left room for argument. But when the child was white, it became an open and shut case. While this example comes from a work of fiction, it is based in reality.

If you really care about All Lives Matter, then Black Lives Matter. And until those three words become a cohesive point of agreement among all Americans, Black Lives Matter is not going away.

After the Rain Comes a Rainbow

Oh, have I waited for this day. On January 20, 2017, I was on a work trip in Southern California. The week been sunny and beautiful until that Friday. I woke up to pouring rain and air so chilly, my fuzzy North Face came in handy. Yes, that happens in SoCal. I didn’t want to watch Trump’s inauguration, but deciding to buck up and face it, I flipped the TV on. I was just in time to catch his swearing in and his speech—none of which alleviated the rising dread that flooded my body to 1. Hear him talk; 2. See our National Mall awash in those silly red hats. The weather in DC was as awful as it was in California that day: cold, dark, foreboding. It was ominous.

On my red eye flight out of LAX that night, the plane was packed with Californian women winging their way East to protest in the Women’s March. Wearing pink hats with the pointed cat ears, they were ready for business. After a flight where no one slept, we alighted in Baltimore with all of them headed directly to DC to let the new president know exactly what they thought of him.

A few weeks later, my family protested the Muslim travel ban at Baltimore’s Thurgood Marshall International Airport. Protesting the Trump administration in word and deed became a new part of my existence. What a heavy four years it has been. And the last two months—sheesh.

But on Inauguration day 2021, the sun was shining bright. And the wind was quite strong. Perfect as nature had to clear out the funk in the air that departed early in the morning. It is exactly two weeks since domestic terrorists stormed the capital building. And a lot of us have been concerned that there was something horrific planned for today’s ceremonies. Personally, I have been praying for the safety and protection of all involved from Joseph R. Biden, right down to the guy tasked with dutifully disinfecting the podium after every speaker and performer.

And it couldn’t have gone any better. It was peaceful. It was safe. It was a new day.

Highlights of the day for me:

  • Kamala Devi Harris (Aunty) becoming the first female VP of this country and a Jamaican, South Indian, Howard graduate, and AKA sister at that! I’m so proud to have witnessed that.
  • Meena Harris’ little daughters with their matching tundra coats and fluffy pigtails. Maybe one day it will be one of them sworn into the highest office of the land.
  • The fashion of the ladies: Dr. Jill Biden, Kamala Harris, Michelle Obama, all the monochromatic and perfectly matched masks of the Biden women, Ella Emhoff, and Lady Gaga with a big ole dove of peace on her top!
  • Joe Biden’s speech: unity, equity, hope. A promise to try to bind the wounds and work together. The man has the track record to show he knows how to reach across the aisle. I look forward to it.
  • Amanda Gorman. Good night. This woman. This poem. This brilliance. This truth. Wow. God broke the mold when He made her. That is all.
  • When the Harris-Emhoffs bid the Pence’s goodbye. Karen Pence said something to Doug Emhoff that got them all laughing. It goes to show you—at the end of the day, we are all just human beings looking to be friendly with friendly people.
  • The executive orders President Biden signed to get us on the right side of history. Yes, there is climate change. Yes, we needed to get back on the Paris Accord. He wasted no time and I’m here for it.
  • The new ALL-FEMALE communications team and the first press conference presided over by Jen Psaki. What a breath of fresh, life-giving air! No lying (go ahead, fact-check everything she said), no combativeness, no rude and petty behavior to the press pool. Just a whip smart, competent woman being transparent and letting the American people know what’s what.
  • ACTUAL PLANS FOR FIGHTING COVID. As an American citizen, this is the first time in four long years I feel looked after by my country’s leadership. We have needed this so bad.
  • The Inaugural Concert. Given where we are and what is going on? This event was about making as many of us feel included in the celebration as possible. Something most of us never come close to through any of the inaugural balls we don’t get to go to. Also, I have a hunch the Bidens and Harris-Emhoff’s weren’t too bummed about missed out on rounding nine balls this evening.
  • The Fireworks!!! So, a huge blessing of my life is living in the DMV (DC, Maryland, Virginia) area and the nation’s capital is just a drive away. I love to go down to the capital at night—traffic is gone, street parking is easily found, and the monuments and memorials at night hit completely different than daytime. I wanted to drive down tonight, but we knew there were tons of road closures, etc. However, it would have been so worth it to see those fireworks! Honestly, they looked like the type that would be set off to celebrate victory over World War 3, which I guess it kind of was.
  • Finally, this was Joe Biden’s hard-won inauguration to the highest office in the land. But everything about the events of the day, from the speeches to the performances, to the overall vibe, was about healing the collective nation, not about celebrating him. It was this country’s big day and that felt good.

The Trump years are now a thing for history books and documentaries. I pray the media stops covering his and his family’s stupid shenanigans as the nation gets on with the business of working through the serious problems that need immediate attention.

But today? Today was a really great day.