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September 11th from Singapore

I was on the other side of the world when it happened.

My memory is curiously spotty about this major event I lived through. I remember exactly what I was doing at the time; yet I remember almost nothing else after.

Singapore is ~12 hours ahead of New York, so I was just finishing up my night class at home, walking out to our living room TV telegraphing that the world had forever changed. I remember thinking how it was a horrific accident, and then seeing footage of the second plane and realizing it was no accident. I remember the third plane crashing into Pentagon. Then the fourth. Drip-fed to us minute by minute through our local TV news, by scared reporters who barely knew any more than we did.

I don't know how I went to sleep that night. I remember looking at my baby sister, playing in her pen. Totally oblivious that the world she was born into had changed forever. (I would get that feeling again 2 years later, as SARS threatened to lock down Singapore in the first coronavirus outbreak of our lifetimes.)

I didn't have any American friends at the time so it never got personal. But we watched with horror and confusion as the stories trickled out; the Falling Man, the Flight 93 phone calls, the firefighters. I have no memory of how my parents or teachers dealt with it or moved on from it. I was myself unaware of how the military response moved from Afghanistan to Iraq and the intense debate prior and the quagmire after.

As a country with a 22% Muslim population, surrounded by other majority Muslim countries, tensions definitely were tight. First, copycat terrorists had to be preempted. Second, relationships needed to be rebuilt between faiths. We would spend the next 1-7 years doing this.

Travel didn't happen for me until about 4 years later when I went on my first international trip for a choir competition. By then almost all the security measures you have today were in place, including the shoe requirement (which now seems to have faded), although they had yet to ban water, and the X Ray machines weren't as fancy. For sure the days of Rachel casually walking up to a flight 30 minutes before departure were gone.

Later when I learned more about geopolitics we would debate The End of History vs The Clash of Civilizations at school and I recall my classmates having very strong opinions without having really read either book. It's still not clear to me that any of that was at all useful or relevant. I remember reading dire essays about the disruptive threat of nonstate actors, yet, as Noah Smith notes, state power won, once citizens gave up their privacy.

I wish I had journaled more back then. I wish I had told myself how it felt living through what I knew to be a special time. I wish I had close Muslim friends to process it with. And I wish I appreciated the difference between sudden tragedy and chronic, endemic disasters.

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