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How the Attacks Have Changed New Yorkers
An Essay by Kenji Jasper

audio Listen to Jasper's commentary.

Photo: Wilma Consul, NPR

Kenji Jasper in the NPR studios
Photo: Wilma Consul, NPR

Oct. 3, 2001 -- Just a few days after the tragedy, someone had laid a row of fresh red and yellow roses at the Chambers Street World Trade Center subway station. That someone, probably a transit cop or tunnel worker, had taken the time to try and make passersby remember what happened there. I think they did it because people don't go out of their way to remember here in New York. Here, the most molten thing can go cold in a moment's time. Weeks later, our pain is still swelling. No one wants to leave home, and that burning smell is still in the air in the streets of the East Village.

September 11th has been our recurring nightmare, but it was also the day that we saw the world with new eyes. That horror awoke us from our satiated slumbers. In the face of death, we were forced to accept the fact that we actually needed each other. Because as soon as the lines were free, we called everyone we knew. We spoke to perfect strangers. We thought as a country, pasting the American flag on everything and dusting off our old Bruce Springsteen records. We chose to stand together and oppose the cowardly tyranny that had chopped our legs out from under us. They had violated our great nation, our home.

This was all particularly interesting for me because our great nation has never been that great. I've grown up in a place where my ancestors were enslaved, robbed of our identities in the name of free labor, where the Native Americans were almost eradicated in the name of property and boundary lines. And those things happened at home.

"Our rose-colored lenses have been crushed, and now we've got to look out our brave new world unfiltered."

Kenji Jasper

U.S. foreign policy has never been flowers and candy to anyone, particularly when we had something to gain by playing the instigator or the big bully in other people's business. Saddam Hussein used to be our friend in Iraq, and that little thing in Rwanda just wasn't worth the attention we gave to Kosovo. But that by no means made thousands of deaths at the hands of murderers even remotely tolerable, and it didn't stop me from feeling a kind of anger that I still don't know how to describe.

My life was changed forever by the awakening knowledge that camouflaged warriors were in our midst, that the double-parked delivery van at the curb could be filled with something fatal. Our rose-colored lenses have been crushed, and now we've got to look out our brave new world unfiltered.

The US and its allies are preparing for military action against our enemies. A bloodbath is destined to take place on foreign lands, but we won't be there physically to see it, so what is there to do back here in the meantime? This is the time for us to remember the worry-free life we lived before, the false sense of safety we lost in less than an hour on a late summer day.

This is the time for us to figure out for ourselves how to fill that empty space in the years to come. Every day as my train passes through it, I still stare at that platform at the now closed Chambers Street station, those flowers now gone. But topside, there's a brightening light in the streets, even beneath the dark cloud of all that has happened, and in a city where we usually mind our own business, we now often look at each other as we pass, nodding in an almost silent reverence. Now we are the survivors, all of us are, and in the times ahead, we have to keep acting like it.

Kenji Jasper is a free-lance journalist and author of the book Dark.