From 9/11 to 11/9

Monday was the sixteenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks that took place on September 11th, 2001. I was sixteen years old at the time.  I was sitting in 11th grade English class when I first heard about the attacks. The school had sent out a memo about it that was laying in front of my teacher, Ms. Madigan, on the table where we were gathered for our English lesson. There would be no English lesson that morning though.

I glanced over at the memo and saw something about a plane crash around the World Trade Center. “A plane crashed into the World Trade Center? ” I asked Ms. Madigan. She hesitated for a moment, took a deep breath and said “Yes, two planes have crashed in to the World Trade Center and another has crashed in to the Pentagon.”

“How did they manage to do that?” I replied, thinking it had been an accident. It took me a minute to realize that this was no accident. This was a deliberate terrorist attack.

I was grateful that my mother no longer worked in New York City, as she had for several years, so I did not have to fear for her safety. But of course the attacks left me feeling shaken and fearful, as they did everyone in America.

Towards the end of the school day I sat surrounded by my peers in a therapy group led by  Delilah, a school social worker. “Is this attack a big deal?” a boy named Evan asked.  “Of course it’s a big deal!” Jacob snapped. “I wasn’t asking you, jackass!” Evan snapped back.

“They’re making a big deal about this because white people were killed by Arabic people but no one makes a big deal when Arabic people are killed by white people”, Layla, an Arabic girl pointed out.

It wasn’t until I got home and turned on the television that I comprehended the true horror of the situation. It was then that I saw visual representations of the destruction, the violence and the carnage that had occurred.  I saw the planes crashing in to the towers, the towers toppling over, the flames, the smoke, the terrified onlookers and survivors, the indistinct forms of those who had not survived, who had chosen death by jumping over death by fire. While most of the images that remain in my memory of September 11th are disturbing images that horrify me, there is one image I find quite poignant. It shows a group of firefighters holding up an American flag amidst the rubble of the World Trade Center.

I knew from history books that the Pearl Harbor attacks made December 7th a day that would live in infamy. Now I knew from my own first hand experience that September 11th would be a day that lived in infamy.

Things would never be quite the same after September 11th, 2001.  We were all forced to adjust to a new normal. Air travel became much more complicated and fraught with worries. Last year I had to fly on September 11th and it made me nervous even though I don’t really believe in superstitions and I knew that ever since September 11th, 2001 I’d probably been safer on flights due to increased security protocol.  I have been subject to multiple post 9/11 airport pat downs (and I’m a white woman with a baby face.)

Thousands of people lost their lives on 9/11 but I know they’re not the only ones who died as a result of that fateful day and I know that the people who lost their lives as a result of it are not the only victims.  A few weeks after the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush announced the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, a war that continues to this day. Countless people have lost their lives as a result of that war. I cannot pretend that they all deserved to die or that they were all guilty by association.  Although I’ll never hear about those people on the news or read their names on memorial plaques, I cannot pretend that their deaths are any less of a tragedy than the ones that occurred on 9/11.

I also cannot pretend that I’ve never had prejudiced feelings towards Muslims or felt uncomfortable around them in the post 9/11 world. But then I remind myself that they don’t have to apologize for the atrocities that were committed in the name of radical Islam any more than I have to apologize for all the atrocities that have been committed in the name of Christianity. I remind myself that with all the prejudice and discrimination they’ve faced after 9/11, they’ve suffered as a result of it far more than I have.

In May 2011, Osama Bin Laden, the mastermind behind 9/11, was killed. I try not to rejoice in anyone’s death but I wasn’t sad to see him go. On September 11, 2011 the 9/11 memorial museum opened in New York City. In December of that year I saw the movie Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which was based on a novel about a boy whose father died in the 9/11 attacks.  It was the second movie I’d seen about 9/11.  I’d chosen not to watch the movies about 9/11 conspiracy theories but In 2006 I saw the movie United 93 about the plane that crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania on 9/11 after the passengers overpowered the terrorist hijackers. I cried, as did the people sitting next to me in the theater. The tears flowed again in 2016 when Bretagne, the last surviving 9/11 search and rescue dog was given a hero’s salute by a group of firefighters as she was walked in to the veterinarian’s office to be euthanized and when her body departed the animal hospital draped in an American flag.

‘Never forget’ is a slogan often associated with 9/11.  On September 11th, 2001  Facebook did not exist but now that it does, on every 9/11 anniversary, it’s filled with tributes to and remembrances of the day. This year was no exception. Some of the tributes were quite poignant and touching, others were frankly quite tacky and tasteless. Tributes or not, I’ll never forget 9/11 and I doubt anyone else will either.

In November 2016 I sat in a booth at a pancake house across from my friend Vanessa from high school.  She had been in English class with me on 9/11/01.  Sitting beside me were Ms. Madigan and Delilah. Vanessa told us how disgusted she was by the results of the recent election, a sentiment we all shared.  The conversation then turned to our classmate, Layla. In the wake of the election Layla had had to change her name on Facebook because she was being threatened and harassed due to her Arabic name.

The election of a president whose campaign was based on hateful rhetoric towards Muslims ( and various other minority groups) had emboldened racists and xenophobes to act out, to turn their hateful thoughts in to hateful actions. Trump often used references and allusions to 9/11 to argue that Muslims were a danger to our country and that they needed to be done away with. He also told a lot of lies and made a lot of tasteless comments about the tragedy because that’s just the kind of person he is.

Tragedies like 9/11 are by their very nature devastating events that cause tremendous suffering. Yet there is always potential for some good to come out of tragedy. It can inspire unity, compassion, awareness, activism, strength, determination, a desire to help others. We certainly saw some of that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and we certainly continue to see some of that today as a direct or indirect effect of the attacks that occurred on that fateful day.

Yet I fear that these days we are moving further towards being poisoned by the kind of hatred and disregard for human life that was in the hearts and minds of those terrorists that attacked us on 9/11/2001, that we are emulating it rather than opposing it.  It’s in the call for a travel ban on Muslim countries, a Muslim registry, a wall between the U.S. and Mexico.  It’s in the decision to uproot the children of immigrants from the only home they’ve ever known, to ban transgender people from serving in the military, to cut healthcare and education funding from the poor, the sick and the vulnerable. It’s in the countless shootings and beatings that have occurred, the countless people who have been discriminated against, attacked or murdered for their religion, their sexuality or the color of their skin.

It’s in the horrific demonstration that occurred in Charlottsville last month in which white supremacists marched through the streets exposing their faces to the world, carrying guns, torches and Nazi flags, spewing insults and threats at minority groups, committing violence in the name of racism and antisemitism until one of those protesters plowed his car through a crowd of counter protesters, injuring 19 and killing 1.  All of this was followed by a president who for days refused to denounce the white supremacists and who never labeled them as the terrorists that they are.

I saw a tweet that read “The 9/11 attacks were a horrific event in US history, but the election of Donald Trump will be seen as equally disastrous, if not more so.”  Some people were offended by that tweet, claiming it made an insensitive and inaccurate comparison.

To those people I say, tragedies that occur on one specific day and result in the immediate physical death of thousands of people are not the only kind of tragedy.  Terrorist attacks that involve deliberately crashing airplanes into office buildings are not the only kind of terrorist attacks. Terrorists who have brown skin and are from middle eastern countries are not the only kind of terrorists.

America faces threats not just from other countries but from within itself, from those U.S. citizens who feel they have license to terrorize their fellow Americans for not being white, for not being Christian, for not being heterosexual, for not being gender conforming, for not having a penis, for not being healthy, for not having been born into privilege.

One of the reasons we must never forget our painful past is so that we don’t repeat its mistakes. Our painful past didn’t start or end with 9/11 and while the attacks can hardly be considered a mistake on our part, some of our responses to it have been. While humans as a species are characterized by their ability to learn from the past, they are also unfortunately characterized by their refusal to do so.

I felt a certain kind of  shock and terror on 9/11/01 and I also felt a certain kind of shock and terror on 11/9/16. While no airplanes had been hijacked by terrorists on 11/9/16, it felt as though our country had been hijacked by a monster who would institute a reign of terror. While on 11/9/16 I would not watch buildings fall or go up in flames over the course of an hour as a result of severe structural damage sustained from terrorist attacks, I could envision a future in which over the course of four years I would watch the pillars of American society crumble and fall as a result of severe damage sustained to the foundations our democracy was built on by repeated attacks from within. I could envision a future in which I  would watch all the progress and advancements that had been achieved within the last forty years in terms of civil rights and equality go up in flames within four years.

On 11/9/16 I did not see people choose to jump out of a burning building rather than remain inside but I heard the voices of people who were considering moving out of this country rather than remaining here. On 11/9/16 thousands of Americans did not die as a result of a terrorist attack nor were they grievously physically injured but millions were grievously injured spiritually and emotionally.  They saw the deaths of their hopes, their, dreams, their sense of safety and security, of their trust, faith and belief in the American people and the American system.

The 9/11 attacks were perpetrated by outsiders that made it clear that they were our enemies, that they wanted to harm us, that they hated everything we stood for.  This prolonged attack on our nation, the reality of which began to set in on 11/9/16, is being carried out by a man from within our country who claims to be our friend and ally, who claims that he will help us, that he has our best interests at heart, that he represents our values, a man who we have elected as our leader. The incidents that occurred on 9/11 were surprise attacks that none of us anticipated and none of us consented to.  Millions of our own citizens consented to and brought about the 11/9 attack that is still currently being waged on our country and will continue to be waged on our country for years to come.

Along with ‘never forget’, there are two other ‘never’ slogans that come to mind-‘never give up’ and ‘never give in’.  They apply to the attitude we must take towards the Trump administration, as does a certain one word slogan- ‘Resist’. Resist the Trump administration just like those passengers on the United 93 flight who managed to divert the plane from its intended target resisted the terrorist hijackers.  Resist,resist, resist. Never forget 9/11 and never forget 11/9.  Never give in to the kind of hatred and evil that brought about the events that occurred on those dates and never give up on fighting for what’s right in the face of the hardships 9/11 and 11/9 have brought to us all.

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Book Review: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Just Mercy is the true story of a lawyer’s work to win justice for those who have been failed by our justice system, especially death row inmates.  For as long as I can remember I have been adamantly opposed to the death penalty. I think it is inhumane, abhorrent and has no place in a society that calls itself civilized. When I read this book I needed no convincing that the death penalty is wrong and should be abolished but if I did need convincing it surely would have swayed me.  I feel that anyone who reads this book and still thinks the death penalty is acceptable is much more of a monster than any of the death row inmates profiled in it.

One of the reasons I am opposed to the death penalty is that there is the possibility of executing someone who is innocent and death is irreversible.  I assumed that executing an innocent person is rare but that one innocent person executed is one too many. I assumed that when an innocent person was placed on death row it was the result of a terrible mistake. This book showed me just how wrong I was in that regard.

It’s said that one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic. This book presented both the horrifying death row statistics and the horrifying individual stories of death row inmates. For every nine people on death row that are executed, one is exonerated. The story that gets the most attention in this book is that of Walter McMillian. He was put on death row for a murder that there was no evidence he committed and plenty of evidence he didn’t.

Over a dozen people could vouch that he was at a fish fry when the murder took place. Another criminal who was a notorious liar was coerced by the police to claim he’d seen Walter at the scene of the crime in exchange for a lightening of his own sentence. The story he spun made no sense and was full of holes but the police were feeling pressure to solve the case and Walter was an easy target because he was a black man who’d had an affair with a white woman. The town where Walter lived, where he was unjustly condemned due to the color of his skin, was a town that took pride in being the setting of To Kill a Mockingbird.  Apparently the irony was lost on its residents.

The death penalty is disproportionately applied to African Americans, who are condemned by juries that are disproportionately white. Other groups of people who are vulnerable to the death penalty include the poor, the mentally ill and the intellectually disabled. When you look at capital punishment in that light it seems like a form of eugenics.

There are a lot of great quotes in this book. Regarding the classicism inherent in our justice system, Stevenson says the system treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent. He says capital punishment means those without the capital get the punishment. So much depends upon a good lawyer and those who can’t afford to hire a good lawyer end up paying with their lives.

McMillian’s story is just one of many horror stories in this books. There’s the story of the woman who gets 10 years in prison for three bad checks to buy her children Christmas presents, the woman who is sentenced to life in prison for supposedly killing a stillborn baby that she couldn’t afford prenatal care for, all those children from abusive homes who are sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison for non-homicidal crimes.

The saddest case of all is that of Jimmy Dill. He was an intellectually impaired man from an abusive home who was imprisoned after being involved in a shooting. When the shooting victim died nine months later as a result of poor medical care, he was sentenced to death. Bryan tried repeatedly to get Jimmy’s sentence overturned but ultimately he was unable to. On the night of his execution Jimmy spoke with a stutter to tell Bryan how grateful he was to him for trying to save his life. As Bryan listened to Jimmy speak, the tears rolled down his cheeks. As I read his account of Jimmy’s last words to him, the tears rolled down my cheeks.

The other part of the book that made me cry was the story of Avery Jenkins, a mentally ill death row inmate who had been severely abused as a child. Bryan had learned that his own career, education and socioeconomic status could not protect him from racism. Because of his skin color, a policeman had treated him like a criminal for listening  to music in his car in his own neighborhood.  When he entered the courtroom as a lawyer the judge would assume he was the defendant on trial. When he went to meet with Avery at the prison he noticed a car full of racist symbols and slogans that referenced cotton picking. When he entered the prison a guard made sure Bryan knew the truck was his. He then proceeded to talk to him in a threatening, aggressive manner and subject him to a humiliating strip search even though it was against protocol.

Avery experienced psychotic episodes and his speech was often incoherent. Every time Bryan met with him he would ask for a chocolate milkshake and Bryan would have to tell him he was sorry but it was against prison regulations. When Bryan appealed Avery’s death sentence in court he talked about the horrific abuse he had endured in foster care.  The next time he went to meet with Avery at the prison he was surprised to be greeted by the guard in a friendly manner and not to be subjected to a strip search. The guard told him that he’d listened to what he’d said about Avery’s experiences in foster care. He said that he’d been abused in foster care himself and he hadn’t thought anyone had it as bad as he did. He also said that on the way back from the hearing he had bought Avery a chocolate milkshake.

Ultimately Just Mercy is a book that is as touching and uplifting as it is shocking and horrifying. Amidst all the misery, cruelty and unjust treatment, there is compassion, insight and mercy. Mercy and compassion are ultimately what are needed to fix our broken justice system. Bryan Stevenson would tell you that our broken justice system is a symptom of our broken selves. Through his work with the incarcerated, Stevenson came to realize that we are all broken. Sometimes we are broken by our own choices, sometimes by circumstances we never would have chosen but we have all hurt and been hurt by others. He realized that his motivation for doing the work that he did was his own brokenness  He wanted justice for his clients and would do anything to get it for them but although the ways in which he and his clients had been broken were different, he could not pretend that their struggles were disconnected from his own.

Of all the great quotes in this book, the one that spoke to me the most was “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” If you lie, you’re more than just a liar, if you steal, you’re more than just a thief and if you kill someone you’re more than just a murderer. Too often when someone commits a crime, I see and hear others speak of the accused in scathing categorical terms, as though the second they emerged from the womb they grabbed a physical or metaphorical weapon, committed a heinous crime and that is the sum total of their life.

And that’s where my own brokenness comes in. I’ve never been incarcerated but I’ve done plenty of things in my life that I’m not proud of and I’d hate for anyone to reduce me to those things. I spent 6 weeks in a mental hospital diagnosed with a mental illness I didn’t have. Walter McMillian spent 6 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.  The other day I was walking through the city reeling from an encounter I’d had with a stranger that had made me think bout how different my autism made me from everyone else, how hard it made my life, how it caused people to make false assumptions about me.  I saw a mural on a building that featured a picture of a woman along with her name. She was listed as being a mural painter, an architecture major, a former prison inmate and an advocate for prison reform.

The sign also said that the U.S. contains 5 % of the world’s population but 25% of its prisoners. Black people are similarly overrepresented in the prison system in proportion to their population.  I’ve come to realize that sometimes the difference between those who are imprisoned and those who are free does not come down to a difference between their behavior or their morality but a difference between the shade of their skin color and the size of their bank account.

Bryan Stevenson says that we seek to to crush, imprison and kill the most vulnerable among us, not because they are a threat to public safety or beyond rehabilitation but because we think it makes us seem tougher, less broken. We’d be better off using our brokenness as a source of compassion and mercy.  The measure of a society’s character and commitment to justice is not how it treats those who are rich, powerful and respected but how it treats the most vulnerable. We all suffer when members of our society are treated poorly and we all benefit when mercy is shown, for all of us need mercy at some point and mercy is a healing transformative force that allows us to see things we would not see otherwise.

A common argument in favor of the death penalty is that some people deserve to die and some people don’t deserve to be shown mercy. Stevenson says mercy is most potent when it is directed at the undeserving and that the question is not whether people  deserve to die but whether we deserve to kill.

The answer to the question of whether we deserve to kill is a resounding no. The answer to the question of whether I would recommend this book is a resounding yes.

Someone was wrong on the internet

Actually several someones were wrong on the internet. Allow me to share my latest encounters with people on the internet who were wrong.  They are both amusing and horrifying.

People periodically come in to my Facebook autism spectrum disorder group to post articles claiming that vaccines cause autism. There is no evidence that vaccines cause autism but there is plenty of evidence that not vaccinating causes potentially devastating and fatal diseases such as polio and measles. Therefore I have little tolerance for people who refuse to vaccinate their children and who spread lies and misinformation about vaccines. I have even less tolerance for these people when the articles they post claim that Andrew Wakefield is a truth crusader (that doctor who lost his medical license after his study linking vaccines and autism was deemed to be a fraud) and that holistic foods cure autism.

When I told that person her article was crap she told me to get woke and see Vaxxed. I’m not sure what exactly ‘get woke’ means but I know that Vaxxed is some bullshit anti-vaccine propaganda documentary. I will not be seeing it. I was also told that if I knew my stuff I’d know that measles is caused by a lack of Vitamin A and was asked when the last time I’d heard of anyone having polio. She’s right, it has been a while since I’ve heard of anyone having polio. Do you think that could have anything to do with the fact that there’s a vaccine for it? When I took a research methods class in college one of the points that was frequently drilled in to our heads was that correlation does not equal causation. I cannot tell you how many times I want to shout CORRELATION DOES NOT EQUAL CAUSATION through the internet at all the morons whose inane arguments prove they do not grasp this concept.

My Facebook ECT support group is generally supportive and there are rarely fights there but the other day someone came in to the group to share links to his ECT group and blog. Since this was an ECT support group we all clicked on the links thinking they would be supportive of ECT but they were strongly anti-ECT. They claimed that ECT was traumatic, inhumane and caused brain damage. I’ve heard all of that before but the guy also said some things about ECT that I’d never heard before.

Apparently ECT causes a state of coffea.  I didn’t know what coffea was. I figured it had to do with coffee but I also wondered if it might have something to do with covfefe. The guy claims that ECT affects your body in a similar way to coffee and makes you like coffee less. It also makes you like bondage and 50 Shades of Grey less. I guess it’s a good thing I was never a fan of those things to begin with.

The restraints that are used to hold you down during ECT result in at least six invisible scars and the bite block that’s used results in dental problems such as bruxism. Is this guy trapped in 1952 or something? I’m proud to say that in addition to my six invisible scars from ECT, I also have a visible scar from it on my chest. This guy compared ECT to date rape and although he said the doctors who perform ECT inflict cruel punishment, he forgot to compare them to Hitler.

I’m pretty sure my brain sustained more trauma and damage trying to make sense of the nonsense that guy spewed on his blog than it did from ECT. He links to the blog of a woman named Alycia who underwent ECT. Even though she says ECT was helpful to her, that’s just because she’s ‘imprinted’ and is unable to recognize the trauma and damage it’s caused her. I kind of hope this guy finds my blogs on ECT and makes me the next Alycia. Regardless, to him I say ‘Bye Felicia.’

Now back to autism related assholery. Another guy claimed on his blog that all people on the autism spectrum are disqualified from being pilots and that there’s not a single flight organization in the world that gives clearance to fly to anyone with an ASD diagnosis. When I told him this was untrue, he said his personal experience showed it was true and that until I could provide a counterexample I needed to shut the fuck up. Then he called me a fucking bitch and said if I wanted to play hardball we would play hardball. To him hardball involved citing FAA regulations that referenced personality disorders. I pointed out that autism is not a personality disorder but that since he’d responded to me telling him he had his facts wrong by calling me a fucking bitch, he might have a personality disorder in addition to autism.

I decided to take him up on his challenge and link to counterexamples showing that people on the autism spectrum could obtain their pilot’s license. He said that the chance of anyone on the autism spectrum obtaining a pilot’s license was less than 1% and he was doing everyone a favor by claiming there was a categorical ban on piloting with an ASD diagnosis.

After deleting my comments and threatening to ‘blacklist’ me, he wrote a blog saying that due to the verbal abuse I’d directed at him, he would now be moderating his blog comments. That’s right, the guy who called me a fucking bitch accused me of being verbally abusive. Apparently self awareness is as rare a commodity on the internet as subtlety. This guy went on to say that he can handle people disagreeing with his opinions. It’s too bad he can’t also handle people saying he hasn’t got his facts straight. Maybe they were alternative facts.

For our final example of someone being wrong on the internet, let us turn to the Philando Castile case. My friend posted a Facebook status about what a travesty the verdict that acquitted the cop who shot and killed Castile was. This friend of hers comes in to say that the cop had a tough decision to make and was afraid for his life after Castile told him he had a gun that he was licensed to carry. According to him there was no reason for him to say he had a gun and once he did say it he should have allowed the police officer to reach in to his pocket and retrieve it for him.

I said that sounded like victim blaming. Castile was following the officer’s instructions when he reached for his ID. He couldn’t have been expected to know that the proper protocol was to let the officer retrieve his ID if that even is proper protocol. He obviously told the officer he was licensed to carry so that the officer wouldn’t freak out and think he was a dangerous criminal when he saw the firearm.  If someone was intent on shooting you it’s unlikely they would tell you they had a gun. It seems you just can’t win when you’re black.

This guy responded that if you’re going to possess something as dangerous as a gun you need to educate yourself on the proper precautions to take. He then added “By the way, I’m part black.” This guy was white as paste.

So those were my most recent encounters with people on the internet who were wrong.  There is no shortage of people on the internet who are wrong so I’m sure I will have many more encounters of the idiotic kind. I know you’re never supposed to argue with an idiot because they’ll bring you down to their level and beat you with experience but there’s a part of me that kind of enjoys arguing with idiots. It’s true that most of them are too stupid to realize how stupid they’re being and they rarely if ever admit they’re wrong or change their mind as a result of anything you say.  In many ways arguing with idiots is a frustrating and futile sport but there is fun to be had in it. I’m rather proud of some of the zingers I shot at the idiots. I’m amused by the memes my friends posted in response to the idiots and arguing against the idiots has been a bonding experience for us. My encounters with people on the internet who were wrong has also made for an interesting blog.

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