Tag Archives: 9/11

Infamous Dates | A Personal Reflection on 9/11

*I invite you to share your remembrances of any infamous date under “Leave a Reply.”

Mind numbing transformations of life and ways of living occur in the briefest and most unexpected of moments. . . .

– The December 7, 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, that prompted President Franklin D Roosevelt’s December 8th “Day of Infamy” speech.

– The December 26, 2004 southeast Asian tsunami, that took the lives of more than 250,000 people.

Between these two dates and events too many unconscionable natural and human-on-human atrocities including, of course, September 11, 2001, when at least and especially for North Americans, the world suddenly seemed too bleak and too frightening a place to galavant (roaming and playing) about in after 19 terrorists affiliated with al-Qaeda commandeered four planes.

Two months prior, July, 2001, I was studying and traveling about in Switzerland and Germany as part of my PhD studies in history of religions. Coincidentally, and perhaps ironically given the ensuing Islamophobia that developed in the United States post-9/11, one of the seminars I attended that July at the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey was on reconciliation.

Like many, I remember where and what I was doing the morning of 9/11.

A new academic year had begun just one week prior, and because my doctoral mentor was undergoing leukemia treatment, he had traveled to Houston’s renowned “cancer hospital,” MD Anderson. I taught his 08:00 – 09:20 Introduction to World Religions class, and we were half-way through the 80-minutes when a student, who I had marked as absent, suddenly opened one of the two rear classroom doors.

Distraught and crying she told us of the planes, the Towers, the unknown number dead, and that she had a sister who worked in one of the towers, but who she discovered was safe. I immediately dismissed class without comprehending the magnitude or severity of events, nor with any sense of the implications of the day’s events on the next day, or the many tomorrows that extended into months, years, and now into a second decade.

All over campus students, staff and faculty gravitated toward each other and to TV’s. I still remember the density of people congregating around two large screen TV’s in Baylor University’s SUB (Student Union Building). There was an uncharacteristic hush throughout the SUB, except for the voices of the news anchors, analysts and political pundits.

Equally, if not more unsettling to me, was September 12th, because for the first time in (my) living memory not a single aircraft was heard or seen in the sky. Even birds in flight seemed an anomaly.

I’m ashamed to say, but it was only after sitting down to draft this blog, and with my mind unconsciously racing here, there and everywhere in its search for associated memories, that I became mindful, re-minded of other equally or greater calamitous events to 9/11, in terms of loss of life – genocides like the Holocaust, Cambodia and Rwanda; the World Wars – hell, most wars; colonization of countries and their people; civil wars like Syria; et cetera. My shame demonstrates how myopic, how forgetful, how self-absorbed, and how provincial our lives can become, and why memorials are so important.

911memotial

I’m not suggesting one calamitous event is worse or less worse than another, for they surely are equally tragic for those who lost and lose loved ones and friends.

For those personally untouched (no friend or family member affected) with each colossal tragedy – apart from the added life inconveniences “suffered” as a result of an event – perhaps it’s a reminder, a wake-up call that we should live lives more daily attuned to our fellow humanity. Truly, no person or nation is an island.

This morning I heard a woman talking on her cell phone to a friend, explaining with a degree of frustration why her upcoming weekend plans were changed – stating, “it’s because of some kind of Jewish holiday.” Obviously she was referring to Yom Kippur, only the holiest of Jewish days in which repentance and atonement accompanies a full-day of fasting, yet which this lady had no knowledge of, or interest in, because she likely had no Jewish friends or acquaintances.

Our own life is difficult enough, I realize. But, perhaps, if we took small, daily measures like being willing and disciplined enough to wean ourselves from total co-dependency on our smart devices like Charlene deGuzman accidentally did one 24-hour period in I Forgot My Phone – a humorous YouTube clip that has garnered more than 22-million hits.

Maybe then we might discover enough time, energy and empathy to give thoughtful pause, prayer (if you’re a person of faith) or praxis (thoughtful action) toward the lives and suffering of so many of the world’s people – individuals with a history and a family, just like the more than 3,000, who lost their lives in New York City on 9/11. Perhaps, too, such moments of reflection would help orient our lives and living in a direction that encompasses and embraces the world and not merely my own private world.

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Till We (All) Have Faces

I wish it were possible to somehow insert an additional line into Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech –

“I have a dream that one day we will be a nation and communities of faces.”

A New York City speaker at a 2003 conference in Fort Worth, Texas, was asked if anything positive came from 9/11.  His response resonated with me.  He replied that if anything good came from 9/11, it was this:

For the first time ever, New York City’s 8 million residents became a “city with faces”—referencing the pictorial wall of remembrance, in which pictures of some of the 2,977 victims from more than 90 countries were posted by grieving friends and family members.

A collage of 9/11 victims' faces.

A collage of 9/11 victims’ faces.

I’ve thought a lot about faces and memories of faces since that evening.

As a child, church was seldom an option for me and my siblings. Living in Kenya this frequently meant we attended a remote, mud-bricked and mabati (tin) roofed church.

In early 70’s Kenya, particularly in rural areas, black-white encounters were still relatively uncommon.  As a young boy, who would rather be fishing or playing ball, it was bad enough I had to attend an hours’ long service.  Time was made worse by Kenyan children’s intense curiosity with my white person’s hair and skin.

Typically my parents would allow my siblings and me to leave mid-service and either play outside or sit in the car and read a book.  Sitting in the car was a reprieve from listening to long, Swahili-Luo translated sermons, but it came with a price – persistent children’s faces, often streaked with snot and pestering flies, pressed against the car’s window, and when left partially open for air, young black arms sneaking in for quick touches, squeezes, followed by giggles.

An Afghan child looking into a car

An Afghan child looking into a car

These many years later I sometimes wonder why that bothered me so?  After all, my best friends back home in the town of Kisumu were Oginga and Ogoro – Luo boys, themselves.

Were the frequently un-wiped noses and bloated malnourished stomachs simply too much of a discomfiture for an 10 or 11-year-old boy? Would my discomfort be mediated had I known their names and shared more in common with their lives? Would I have been as bothered if they were young white arms reaching in? Perhaps it was the proximity of these young faces.  They were within easy arm-reach, too close for comfort.  Too intimate.

I don’t know if it’s “natural” or not – it is disrespectful and shameful – but have you noticed how people of one race tend to view people of another race in a one-size, “all look-alike” category?  That is – among whites, anyway, it’s quite common to hear the following type comments about Asians, for instance: “I can’t easily tell them apart! They all look so alike.” or “I just call them by their ‘English names’ because their mother tongue names are too difficult to remember, let alone pronounce.”

During my post-graduate research I came across the story of a white Union army commander, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who was assigned the task of leading an all-black regiment.  He confessed that initially he was unable to distinguish the soldiers from each other, yet “as one grows more acquainted with the men, their individualities emerge; and I find first their faces, then their characters, to be as distinct as those of whites.”

black soldiers

Similarly, an American missionary woman, Carrie L. Goodenough, stated of the Zulus in a letter of 1883 from Natal, South Africa, “At first I thought their faces all looked alike, but I see difference now, both in features and expression; and after one is accustomed to the Zulu type of features, many of the faces are really pleasing.”

Culture and media have combined to promote a sense that beauty is outward.

What about the many, however, who are born without a model or actor’s face, or even worse, perhaps, born with an attractive face and it’s then yanked away by an act of violence or disease?  Many U.S. soldiers have experienced acute facial disfigurement due to IEDs.

One publicized example of disfigurement is Charla Nash, a 56-year-old single mother, who, several years ago, went to help a friend contain a pet chimpanzee and ended up having her face and hands ripped off.  She later underwent a complete facial transplant.

ap_charla_nash_jp_120628_wblog

I just googled “the wonders of the face” and got nothing, zero.  Just a listing of links to various “wonders,” including the seven wonders of the world, the seven wonders of Egypt, wonders of Africa, et cetera.

Doesn’t anyone but me think the face should be classified as an eighth wonder of the world – even those disfigured?

I realize the face is quite daunting and intimidating if you prefer to live a life void of intimacy, which men, in particular, might opt for (but only as an act of bravado). Men such as Tommy Lee Jones’s character “Arnold” in the movie Hope Springs; the story of a 31-year marriage in an acute state of disrepair.

Arnold and Kay (Meryl Streep) sleep in separate bedrooms. They tell their last-ditch, marriage saving therapist, Steve Carell, that they last had sex five years back.  Carell assigns them homework, one of which being to have sex.

It’s painful to watch, but eventually lying on a rug beside a crackling fire they almost succeed in culminating a rekindled passion.  Unfortunately the moment and mood is spoilt by Arnold’s inability and unwillingness to look directly into his wife’s eyes and face while making love – apparently a long-held, intimacy avoiding trait, which is almost the undoing of their marriage.

I simply felt like drawing attention to “faces” today.  I don’t know what your particular “take away” will be from this blog, if anything, but I hope you risk looking more deeply and intimately at and into the faces of friends, family, and even day-to-day acquaintances, whether it’s the check-out person at your local grocer, your librarian, teacher, colleague, even that person who frustrates you to the 100th degree.

Perhaps like Arnold, if you persist in trying and looking into the faces of those within your concentric circles of relationships, you’ll experience a newfound, even heightened sense of respect and appreciation for the others in your life – maybe even call them by name.

 

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Confessions of a (former) Killer and Gun Lover

Given the tension in the United States over gun rights and the prospect of tighter gun controls, I want to contribute a few thoughts on the subject myself.  I start with a confession.

I confess that I was a killer of African wildlife and I was a lover of guns (although the latter sounds a bit kinky as I write it).  Okay, so I’m not a former killer of people as my blog title might intimate at, and you’re disappointed in a sick-kind-of-way because that’s why you clicked on my blog. Please don’t disengage.  Read on.

Don't I look "tough"!:)

Yes, I thought I was quite the dude.

First, a preamble: This blog is not a diatribe against guns, gun ownership or hunting. I accept the arguable concepts of self and national protection, as well as conservation reasons for hunting or culling. Rather, I write as someone whose perspective on guns and hunting has changed, and this is my attempt to explain in part why.

I don’t recall ever choosing these twin interests.  I simply was born into a family and culture where owning guns, shooting guns, and hunting with guns was entertainment and identity.  It helped that once or twice a year guns and hunting resulted in a freezer filled with venison of wildebeest, impala, eland, hartebeest, warthog, yes, even the occasional zebra or cape buffalo. I admit I enjoyed going on several day “hunting safaris” in Kenya, Tanzania, and once in Botswana.

There’s something magical about camping out under the canopy of an African night sky, as Hemingway did, while nursing a cup of coffee, chai, or hot chocolate around a warm, crackling campfire – my family were teetotalers, therefore, regrettably I never knew the greater joy of nursing a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon until much later in life – listening to the nearby sounds of hyenas and jackals, and occasionally, a distant rhythmic chorus of lions (hear at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iC5vrt7eGG4), all while gazing up at the ga-trillion stars that mesmerized and enthralled your wonderment of life and being alive.

My family didn’t always go on safari just to kill.  Even on “non-kill” photographic safaris, however, hunting was ever-present on our minds.  We enjoyed wildlife viewing safaris to national parks, including Masai Mara, Amboseli, Samburu, Serengeti, The Ark, Treetops, Lake Nakuru, Ruaha, and Ngorongoro Crater. Although we exchanged rifles for cameras on these occasions, this did not stop the males among us from incessantly referencing this and that particular animal from a hunter’s eye.

“Wow, look at the horns on that impala!”  Or, “Wow, what I would give to have my rifle right now!” Or, “That Zebra stallion has dark, beautiful stripes – a lot nicer than the zebra I shot last year.”  Sometimes my siblings and I would so intensely want to shoot a prized trophy that we would act out a shot, positioning our left and right arms and hands outward toward an animal, as if holding a magnum calibre rifle, and then making a shot sound with our mouths, while simultaneously pulling on an imaginary trigger. Of course, on these “hunts” we always bagged our animal.

An elephant "shot" with camera at too close proximity.

An elephant “shot” with camera at too close proximity.

This interest and love of hunting and firearms lasted longer than I care to admit.  And when guns no longer featured into my home inventory, they were temporarily replaced with a compound bow.  I transitioned to bows for two reasons.  Most importantly, I lost bi-lateral high-frequency hearing for a combination of likely reasons, one of which, were rifles exploding in close proximity to my unprotected ears.  Stupid, stupid, stupid! Secondly, once you master “the shot,” which I did, rifle hunting offered little pleasure other than “the stalk.”   The rush that comes from observing first-hand the skill of an expert tracker as he reads the telltale signs of animals and nature, and leads you ever closer to your intended quarry is the topic of many a-fireside-conversations.

Tracker follwing animal spoor

Tracker following animal spore

What changed my mind about firearms is difficult to articulate in words. Obviously there exist any similar number of “Newtown, Connecticut” type incidents to point at, yet those have all occurred at a safe and sterile distance from my own life, and despite the horrid, tragic, and senseless loss of life, including small children, they were not the effective change agent for me.

Although I could add as a caveat, that during my family’s residence in South Africa, we once counted up the number of friends and acquaintances we had known murdered and it came to about 20, and add to that almost 50 incidences of armed hijacking (I lost count after 40).  Yet even there, amidst what psychologists and social theorists define as “a culture of violence,” mindsets were mitigated because South African society absurdly yet understandably came to accept violence and crime as simply part of “the culture.”  After all, if you’re unable to stop or stem violence you still have to live with it.

Zapiro cartoon depicting an endemic "culture of crime" in South Africa

Zapiro cartoon depicting an endemic “culture of crime” in South Africa

For me, a change of mind and attitude toward guns and killing germinated during the summer of 2001.  That summer just prior to 9/11 was singularly formative in reshaping my worldview and identity, and, of course, post-9/11 only reinforced my sense of shared identity with people of the world, given that more than 90 countries lost citizens on that day.

As part of my postgraduate studies I had the fortune to attend summer/2001 seminars at Bossey Ecumenical Institute in Geneva, Switzerland. This studies-abroad experience was singularly transformative, in that, for the first time I was obligated to temporarily suspend my protective, American cultural identity bubble.  If I was to get anything out of the three weeks’ study, I had to place myself in the vulnerable and unsettling position of having to listen and vicariously experience life and faith through the shared experiences and perspectives of individuals, who I shared few life commonalities with.

A discussion about homosexuality and interpretation of holy scriptures arose one session, particularly over how subjective truth is, and how people are selective (pick and choose texts that best fit their interpretive and cultural lens) when it comes to contentious issues.  My mindset at the time was conservative, so both my thought and contribution was in effect to try to claim a high ground of “absolute scriptural authority” (*postmodernism posits that all truth is interpretive and provisional – I agree) and disregard or at least minimize the reality and day-to-day experience of those who of necessity have to live a daily branded life of being gay.

At some point in the discussion, America’s gun culture came into play.  A participant from India, about my age, heterosexual, and married shared something that struck a deep chord of change in me.  I take considerable liberty in recounting these twelve years later what exactly she said –

“Being tolerant or even advocating for homosexual rights is about perceiving God as ‘life-giving.’  Whatever is life giving or affirming of life is of God, because God is the ‘giver of life.'” She contrasted the “sin” of homosexuality with the “sin” of America’s penchant for guns, violent entertainment, and sometimes aggressive interventionist strategies abroad and posed this concluding thought: One affirms life and the other destroys life, therefore which one poses the greater societal ill and danger?

In November, during the period leading up to Thanksgiving, many, if not all North American Jain communities, hold all-night prayer vigils for the millions of turkeys that are slaughtered for our ritualistic feast day.  In case you know nothing about Jainism, it is an Indian religion, of which one of its underlying tenets of faith is “ahimsa” or “non-violence.” Gandhi’s non-violent means of protest took its inspiration from Jainism, and later Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as Nelson Mandela were inspired by Gandhi.  So there is some truth in saying that Jainism singularly sparked social revolutions on three separate continents and through three historically significant individuals.  When I shared the Jains’ prayer vigil for turkeys with my world religion classes each semester, I inevitably heard snickering.  To young identities shaped by a pioneering, minutemen and wilderness-subduing history, such as is the United States’, the idea of commiserating with birds to be slaughtered seems the utmost in absurdity.

Yet is it?

Which is more out of kilter?  A near obsession by many with all things guns – gun shows, gun collections, gun rights, and guns themselves, of which the latter were the primary contributing factor in 8,600 of 12,700 total murders in 2011? Or an “absurd” valuing of life; one that advocates non-violence even to the point of holding all-night prayer vigils for turkeys?

You be the judge.

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