On the Fourth Anniversary of Sept. 11

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Commentator Farah Jasmine Griffin reflects on the fourth anniversary of the terror attacks on the United States. Griffin is director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University.

ED GORDON, host:

The nation marks another national crisis this Sunday, the September 11th terror attacks. Commentator Farah Jasmine Griffin takes a moment to reflect on what she's carried away from that day.


After 9/11, I stopped riding the subway for a little while. It's wasn't a conscious decision. I didn't even notice it until a couple of months later, perhaps around Christmas. In fact, I only realized I'd stopped riding it when I felt a bit of trepidation descending into cavernous tunnel. That's the way 9/11 affected a lot of us; no big phobias, just little gnawing ones we didn't even know were related to that horrific event. We don't live in a state of panic. Instead, we conduct our lives with caution, an irritating expectation that something catastrophic might be just around the corner. We share the watchfulness of people around the world who lived with the expectation of arbitrary violence.

When bombs exploded in the trains in Madrid and London, we in Manhattan worried. When uniformed armed guards filled the New York subway stations, some of us opted for the bus or long walks. When, following the bombing of the London tube stations, police mistakenly identified a frightened young Brazilian as a terrorist and killed him, some of us experienced yet another kind of fear and anger. I love New York. I especially love the subway. In a residentially segregated city, it's one place where New Yorkers of every type come together: the young boys selling huge candy bars competing with the soliloquies of homeless men and women; the beautiful African-American and Dominican teen-agers sitting quietly. Next to them, the tanned fashionistas with their big engagement rings and ridiculously gorgeous stilettos; and my favorites, the hard-working, world-weary riders of every race and ethnicity.

I didn't ride the subway on September 11th, 2001. As I emerged from a morning walk in Riverside Park, I saw a swarm of jet black cars with darkened windows and screaming sirens headed downtown. I went uptown; first back to my apartment, where concerned family members and friends were calling. I heard news of the plane that flew into the World Trade Center and watched on television as another one flew into the second tower. Wanting to be in the street with others, I left the confines of my building. Like Ellington's "Take the `A' train," I sought the quickest way to Harlem, only on foot. I guess I felt I would be safest in a place where the streets are filled with brown and black faces.

Later that day, I joined a friend, and we sat stunned at one of our regular outdoor cafes with others from our neighborhood, eating french fries and watching as M-16s flew overhead. We talked, listened to the radio, spoke with those who'd walked the long trek from downtown, because by now, the subway had stopped running. The explosions had destroyed some of the downtown stations. I thought about all of the riders, the candy-selling boys and the teens, the fashionistas, the workers and the homeless, how many of them would be counted among the missing and the dead.

This year on the anniversary of 9/11, I will attend services at Riverside Church, one of our city's grand cathedrals. There, where people of diverse ethnic, racial and national backgrounds will gather to worship, and where the fearless pastor often speaks out against the senselessness of war, we'll commemorate all the lives lost on that day and every day since. Yes, I'll go to church and then I'll take my chances and head for the subway.

GORDON: Farah Jasmine Griffin is a professor and the director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University.

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