15 years ago today my father appeared in the room my sister Mallory and I shared. He wasn’t singing his off-key “good-morning!” jingle that normally got us out of bed within seconds so we wouldn’t endure any more. This morning, at around 6 am, my father simply took a deep breath and said, “planes just hit the twin towers.”
My sister and I, 3000 miles away from New York City and completely bewildered, followed him to our tiny dining room where my mother stood glued to the small Panasonic television. She seemed to be watching a scene from a movie that kept playing over and over again. I watched as a tiny object hit the building, an explosion erupted, and the building crumbled to the ground almost instantly. The scene replayed over, and over, and over. “Why is this happening?” my sister touched my mother’s arm. “They think it’s terrorists,” she replied, never averting her eyes.
In the next two hours, my father drove us to our small Catholic school as he would any Tuesday. Our neighbor Grayson carpooled with us. When we approached the school, the normal line of cars for drop off was no where to be found. We pulled up to the entrance and Coach Val, our P.E. teacher, met us at my father’s car. “School’s cancelled today,” she informed us. We drove home. Grayson and I tried to find a movie to see, but decided against it. “I think I should go home,” he said, and walked home.
I called my grandmother, the smartest person I knew. I felt so confused. Why would anyone fly airplanes into a building and kill thousands of people? I heard her voice on the other end of the phone. “Grandma,” I paused. “Is this like Pearl Harbor? Do you remember that?”
My grandmother remembered exactly where she was when Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor. “My sister and I were playing outside with toys our father brought us from Japan,” she explained. Her father was in the Navy. “As soon as we heard what happened, we took those expensive, rare toys and we smashed them. We wanted nothing to do with anything Japanese. That was like affirming the enemy and what they did to our country.”
In college I wrote my honors thesis about the parallels between the attack on Pearl Harbor and the attacks on the twin towers and the Pentagon. My mission was to demonstrate that the aftermath of Pearl Harbor had caused significant civil rights violations for Japanese Americans and several other marginalized groups at the time, and that now, 70 years later, Muslim Americans and others were experiencing the very same violations in different ways. I poured over records of illegal surveillance, deportation, and hate crimes on American citizens. The inspiration for my project was twofold: Japan had become a second home for me after studying there for a year, and as a member of USC’s Student Interfaith Council, I had developed a deep friendship with another member of the Council: an Egyptian-American Muslim woman.
Through my research, the finding that gave me most pause was not the countless civil rights violations, the violence both Japanese and Muslim Americans encountered after the events, or even the conspiracy theories that 9/11 was an “inside job.” What really moved me were the stories I discovered in the Rafu Shimpo, Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo newspaper, about Japanese Americans fighting for Muslim Americans’ rights and safety 70 years after their own community had been “othered”, outcast, labeled subversive and dangerous. I read about Japanese American Angelinos marching outside the Little Tokyo Public Library demanding justice for Muslims. I poured over the story of Karen Korematsu, the daughter of Fred Korematsu, a man who attempted to escape internment by receiving plastic surgery and changing his name. Karen is an activist in San Francisco, and through an institute in her father’s name, advocates for Muslim Americans through education initiatives. Tears dotted my notebooks as I wrote about these stories. My heart sang witnessing a community once shunned and literally displaced from their homes and freedom making a commitment to help a different community now experiencing what they did.
In my work now as a religious life professional in higher education and interfaith leader, I am often asked what core beliefs I hold as a practicing Zen Buddhist. Usually, I respond with the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and perhaps my own truth that suffering is communal and a reality for each of us. I speak often of interconnectedness, the effect every person’s actions have on the world. Not one person lives in a vacuum, we all reside in this ever-changing, impermanent world. We are all connected, no matter how hard we try to distance ourselves. When I think about people I love, this is an easy concept to hold. My care for one person is like a ripple in a pond, it spreads through one person to another, and another, and another.
As I reflect on my grandmother smashing her Japanese toys, the objects that represented her country’s enemy, I realize her effort to separate herself and her American identity mirror the efforts of millions who denounce terrorists. I have tried to separate myself completely from the people who have harmed my generation, denouncing them as sick, monsters, unhuman. The truth is, interconnectedness means that I am forever connected to my worst enemies, and to affirm this is to affirm my own implicitness in violence and oppression every single day. My actions cause suffering, and I need not look further than next door where a family of eight lives in fear of going hungry each night for proof.
15 years later, the image of the planes hitting the towers as they crumble plays in my mind as if it were yesterday. 15 years later I know why the stories of the Japanese American activists fighting for the rights and dignity of Muslims touch my heart so fervently. These activists recognized their interconnectedness- not only to the Muslim and Sikh Americans and others who have suffered in the aftermath, but to the terrorists, the suicide bombers, the fighter pilots whose actions still have immense effect today. Hate crimes and violence against Muslims have surged this year, the wounds of terrorism and mass violence still fresh. This risky act of caring for another person or community who suffers, especially when they are ostracized, can only be sustained by love. This love is what makes the reality of interconnectedness a triumph, not a failure.
I wish everyone a blessed, contemplative anniversary of a very tragic day. I urge us to remember that every moment is full of potential tragedy and triumph, and that the difference is made when we act through love.