Sunday, September 11, 2011

Day of Defeat

Everyone remembers their own story about September 11. How couldn't we? For a boy just in his teenage years, not quite reaching the point where world events were at least as important as video games, it was a jarring and sudden wake-up call.

I was in Singapore. It was shortly after 8 p.m. I was upstairs, on the internet as was my wont. I'd just moved overseas, and school had started only a few weeks prior. My dad called me downstairs. Like the rest of the Americans overseas, young and old, my family and I were glued to the television for the rest of our night - what would be for most Americans a long, agonizing day.

You'll often hear that 9/11 changed the character of Americans, fundamentally. I'm told that in the first few days in the country, solidarity was the word of the day, but that the ugly elements of a changed national mood reared their head soon enough.

Looking back, anything America as a whole experienced, I think the overseas community reacted even faster.

Of course there was the solidarity. You didn't have to watch the candlelight vigils on the television when there were four happening in my school alone. What was for me the morning after September 11, I remember everyone in school silent, ignoring the class bells, watching President Bush deliver his address following the attack. It had produced psychological blows that could turn 8th graders somber and brooding.

But in retrospect what I remember most was the fear. At first, the famously tolerant overseas community seemed to be a beacon for the wider national solidarity in Singapore. But then, what seems like a short time afterwards, dark-skinned men with jaunty hats, huge sickle-shaped knives and automatic weaponry showed up outside of my school. I remember the stares that came from the kids on my bus. Then we heard: there'd been a Jemaah Islamiyah plot to bomb the US embassy, The American Club, our school, an MRT station. The reaction to the security was one of relief. It was also a microcosm of what had happened to America: the sudden realization that we were vulnerable. Instead of it taking months in America, for us it was only a few days.

Our buses, which previously had had a huge Singapore American School logo on them, suddenly had them crudely painted over. We were encouraged by our parents to avoid going out with our friends in our school uniforms. People in Little America stood on their porches, keeping vigil over their neighborhood.

I remember when people started cancelling all of their trips to Muslim countries, most from mistaken paranoia. All it brought on was suffering, and in many cases, resentment. It was this fear that doomed Bali to ten years of recession, Eat Pray Love notwithstanding. The first time I visited, in 2003, the tour guide assured us he was Hindu, without any prompting. Why, I thought, should that matter?

For those who lived in cosmopolitan Singapore, with its large Muslim minority, the general attitude continued to be tolerance - at least of Singapore's citizens. But in a lot of other ways, Americans withdrew. My mother wasn't sure if it was safe for me to go to a main shopping street alone. We all banded together in this little bubble of social groups around the American club, a golf resort in Bintan, the American School, and locals went into the background.

Perhaps what was most jarring was the attitude of the newcomers to our little group. After American popularity took a turn for the worse in 2003, the reaction of any newcomer was to circle the wagons. These were kids who thought of Muslims with fear, who assumed anyone foreign might be threatening, and sailed into the life of privilege afforded to most expatriates with a sense of entitlement rivalled only by their desire to be haughtily judgmental. One day I saw a kid trying to tease a building worker, who was a Muslim, with food. It was Ramadan. He was two years older than I. Another time, I had to shout at four stupid kids who thought that our bus driver was a Nazi because he had a red swastika on his bus. They couldn't understand that it was a Buddhist, Hindu and Daoist symbol, but most importantly refused to acknowledge the difference between any of those and a terrorist.

September 11 was a defining moment for my entire generation. I've taken recently, however, to calling it the day of defeat. We lost. Al-Qaeda won. From my vantage point in Singapore, through most of the years of the Bush presidency, I saw how insular and violent America became, the inchoate anger of the rest of the world as they beheld us lashing out at real or imagined demons. I watched how slowly, America enacted laws that made it seem closer to Singapore, still only a slightly relaxed police state, than I was comfortable with.  And most of all, I felt like I was one of the only ones mature enough - even among the adults - to stop and say, "what are we becoming?" I didn't like what I saw. It is especially telling that for three years while I was in high school, I told people that I wasn't an American. A silly sentiment perhaps, but the truth was I found it difficult to identify with the country I had come from.

Osama bin Laden was a twisted sonofabitch, and wanted Muslims to unify against an aggressive America that could be branded a great Satan. He imagined us as petty, insular, drunk on our own power, vicious, uncaring, and utterly intolerant of Muslims, or anyone else for that matter.

Osama bin Laden imagined a caricature of America, and he made it, in many ways, truth.

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