Josna Rege

467. “Post-9/11”

In 2000s, blogs and blogging, history, Immigration, Inter/Transnational, postcolonial, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 20, 2020 at 12:33 am

This is the sixteenth entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.


Why do I put this tiny but explosive phrase in quotation marks? Because I object to it. I don’t like the way this tragic event has been packaged and sold, and what has been done in its name over the past nearly-nineteen years. I don’t want to be a part of its perpetuation in this form. Why, then do I devote an entry to it? Because if I am documenting my experience as an immigrant to the U.S. over the past 50 years, however impressionistically, I cannot possibly fail to mention the terrorist attacks on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City on September the 11th, 2001.

First, a few words on the buzzword, “9/11”: I must irritate my students no end every time I query their use of “9/11” in an essay, asking them instead, at least at the first mention of it, to name the event to which this shorthand is gesturing. They probably think I’m being pedantic, that everybody knows what is being referred to, but they don’t ask me why. I tell them anyway.

The bombing of La Moneda on 11 September 1973 by the Chilean Armed Forces

Do you know, I say to them, most of the world would refer to September the 11th as 11/9, not 9/11. When writing a date in numbers people from most countries put the day of the month first, then the month. That’s the first assumption you cannot make about your readers understanding you. More importantly, you cannot assume that the date, however it is written, will mean the same thing to all readers. In Chile, for example, the Eleventh of September, 11/9, refers to a day in 1973 that is branded into the collective memory of all Chileans: the day when the military overthrew the democratically-elected President Salvador Allende and began a reign of terror under the rule of General Agusto Pinochet, that lasted until March 11, 1990—nearly seventeen years. The United States supported Allende’s opponents and was quick to recognize the military junta. It is estimated that under that regime, more than 3,000 people were killed or went missing, tens of thousands were tortured, and 200,000 were driven into exile. The point is, if you want the rest of the world to know what you mean by “9/11”, and more importantly, to care about what you mean by 9/11, then have the humility to recognize that they may already have their own, different associations with that date.

Sadly, people in the rest of the world do know what the U.S. means by “9/11,” and that is because, post-9/11, directly or indirectly, they have suffered the consequences of those terrorist attacks on U.S. soil many times over. The Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute has been keeping track of the data, measured in dollars and human lives, for a decade. You can read their extensive findings and watch an introductory video (made in 2016) on their site, but some of their summary data are as follows

    • Over 801,000 people have died due to direct war violence, and several times as many indirectly
    • Over 335,000 civilians have been killed as a result of the fighting
    • 21 million — the number of war refugees and displaced persons
    • The US federal price tag for the post-9/11 wars is over $6.4 trillion dollars
    • The US government is conducting counterterror activities in 80 countries

So, yes, the world knows what Americans mean when we say “9/11”; how it feels about it is another matter.

Post-9/11, Arab and Muslim Americans came under intense scrutiny, and the profiling they underwent made them deeply insecure about their place in this country, creating a state of “homeland insecurity,” as one study’s author Louise Cainkar put it. Their personal stories are heartbreaking. It wasn’t only Arab Americans who were targeted, but also Americans from a host of other countries in West and South Asia, from Turkey to Bangladesh and everywhere in-between, as well as a number of Americans from Central and South America. The early post-9/11 period was a nightmare for them, because overnight, anyone who looked even vaguely as if they might be “one of Them” was suspect, and to many of their fellow-Americans, the enemy.

Post-9/11, businesses run by Arabs, Asians, and Muslims of all ethnicities and national orogins were shunned. My sister told me that about a month after the attacks she went into one of her favorite restaurants to order some quick take-out food. The place was completely empty, despite a huge American flag and “United We Stand” sign on the door, and the proprietor, a Pakistani Muslim, told her that she was his first customer in a month.

In this Aug. 19, 2016 photo, Indian Sikh immigrant Rana Singh Sodhi kneels next to a memorial in Mesa, Ariz., for his murdered brother, Balbir Singh Sodhi, who was gunned down at this site four days after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks by a man who mistook him for a Muslim because of his turban and beard. Sodhi has preached a message of peace and tolerance in hopes of helping others better understand the Sikh religion, the fifth largest in the world with some 25 million adherents including a half-million in the United States. (AP Photo/ Ross D. Franklin)

Hate crimes against anyone with brown skin went through the roof. Sikh men, many of whom wear turbans, were particular targets. According to the Sikh Coalition, there were more than 300 documented hate crimes against Sikhs in the month after 9/11 and on September 15th, a Sikh American, Balbir Singh Sodhi, who worked in a gas station in Arizona was profiled as an Arab Muslim and murdered.

Few Americans are aware that in the immediate post-9/11 period, “thousands of men, mostly of Arab and South Asian origin. . .were rounded up and held in secretive federal custody for weeks and months.” Even their families didn’t know where they were. Some were even “held for additional months even after a court ordered their immediate release” (Penn State Law). One of the casualties of 9/11 was the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). In 2002 the INS was abolished and subsumed into the newly-formed cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security. The experience of immigration and naturalization has been much more punitive ever since (Penn State Law 4).

Although I was not as vulnerable as many others, I wasn’t entirely exempt. Immediately after 9/11 I was asked to speak at a forum being organized at my college with the title, “Why Do They Hate Us?” The title alone was all wrong. The “they” and the “us” made me wonder which category the no-doubt-well-meaning organizers saw me in. Nonetheless, I did speak, and tried to explain, complicating the question, as any good postcolonial critic would do. A makeshift border patrol checkpoint was set up on the highway of my weekly commute, and I was regularly stopped and asked for identification as I was driving home exhausted at the end of a teaching week. The first time I didn’t have my Alien card with me and was taken out of the car and into a small trailer set up in a highway rest area while they checked my details on multiple databases and gave me a threatening warning.

As a result of the post-9/11 climate—when, as I recall, the then-President of Harvard suggested that it was a time for professors to show loyalty to their country—I decided, at the repeated urging of my husband, that it was time for me to apply for naturalized citizenship. Nearly two decades later, in February 2020, I notice that the current administration has set up a Denaturalization Section under the aegis of the Department of Justice. Homeland insecurity indeed.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

  1. Being accurate with words is so important and it’s so easy to get it wrong.

    Ask Christopher Columbus, who rushed to call inhabitants of “the new world” Indians.

    And don’t get me started about what the POTUS does with his choice of words.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Epi. Yes, don’t I know about Indians and Indians! Innocent or ignorant mistakes are one thing, and can be corrected, but their deliberate misuse is another thing thing altogether.
      Some of those words that seem so ill-chosen are actually perfectly aimed to the desired effect at their target audience. In his own way, he knows the words that will inflame the passions of his followers.


  2. That parting shot you give (yes, I do know the context of that metaphor but you know what I mean by it!) is chilling: ‘denaturalization’ is akin to ‘un-American’ in its Orwellian overtones. 🙁

    Liked by 1 person

    • Isn’t it, Chris? I suspected when these people came into office that they weren’t just aiming at undocumented immigrants, but that they’d set their sights on legal immigrants as well. Now not only are they making it harde3r and harder to immigrate, legally or otherwise, they’re going for people who thought that the struggle was behind them. Actually, though, I think they’re mostly doing it to make everyone feel insecure all the time, just for the chilling effect.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you. What you have to say here is very important.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Very well put Josna. How quickly that 19 years passed.

    Finding Eliza

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I look forward to every one of your posts popping up on my reader Josna. This post is thought-provoking and educational for those, like me, living outside USA. 11 Sept 2001 is etched in my brain along with JFK and Martin Luther King’s assassinations. Of course others are too but my perception of the event about which you write was a turning point in my understanding of global perceptions of different people groups. Well you may ask, under which rock was I hiding but it was a wake up call. Am so enjoying this series during April. LInda x

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you so much for taking the time to read and to comment, Linda, and for your encouraging words. It’s such fun posting a piece late at night and getting immediate feedback from Australia–where you have already posted the next day’s piece! I’m also delighted that you got something from the story, because it’s been written about so much that I wondered what I could possibly say. Now to read your “Q” in bed. Good night/G’Day! J


      • Ah Josna! Q is still a work in progress. Sleep tight x


        • Thank heavens, Linda! (It must have been someone else’s Q coming up in my email; just assumed it was yours. I’m perennially running to catch up this month, doing this by the seat of my pants. Don’t know what to do for Q yet (though my husband suggested Questions), just that it’s got to be something short.


  6. This was a very readable and informative look at the repercussions of the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers. Notice I did not say 9/11.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow–fast learner! Wish I had you in my class! Thank you for commenting, Linda and glad you found it readable. It’s such a fraught topic that it’s hard to know how to approach it, and I wanted to do something a little different for the immigrant’s perspective.


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