From all the way across the country, we watched the towers burn. In my case, one of my closest college friends was talking on CNN over the images that were impossible to comprehend.
She was a producer who lived in downtown Manhattan and upon hearing the first collision had run up the stairs of an apartment building across from the towers and banged on doors until someone fleeing the building let her in to watch from their windows.
When the culprits were quickly discovered – that blurry, frozen image of Mohammed Atta off that airport security camera – all I wanted to do was go back to the Middle East where I’d started my journalism career. To understand. And explain to people. But mostly to understand.
I had an inkling. I’d met fundamentalist Muslims before, in the decrepit public housing of French suburbs. Among friends in Egypt who’d turned their backs on me and taken to praying five times a day. In the modern-day Dante’s Inferno of the Gaza Strip, where there was every reason to trade reality for 70 virgins in another life.
To them, the attacks made plenty of sense. Only we Americans, like some feckless 21st century Candide, were clueless.
Fareed Zakharia showed up to explain what was going on. The Newsweek cover read: Why They Hate Us.
The easy answer was: They hate us for our freedom. But we wouldn’t be allowed such a simple salve to this wound.
As soon as I could find an editor who would allow me to go, I headed out of the country. First to Europe, where before 2001 ended I got to argue into the wee hours with Muslims in a working class town about their plans to create a khalifate in England. (I still have the collection of English-language cassettes preaching Judeo-Christian overthrow for sale in the neighborhood.)
Then on to Egypt, where not one single person I met would believe that Osama bin Laden had anything to do with 9-11. It was an obvious set-up, they said. That’s why none of the Jews went to work at the twin towers that day.
Ten years on, the scales have fallen from all of our eyes. We Americans know the world as a place of hostility, and suspect it of much. We have inflicted our own pain and suffering as a result of 9-11, primarilly not on those who were responsible for it.
The Egyptians, like the other Arabs, have finally had their blinders stripped away, and cast a critical eye inward. The world-view that created and sustained Osama bin Laden was one in which everyone else was to blame for the problems in Muslim society: America, the Jews, the Christians, Europe.
But that world-view had nothing to offer in its place. Neither dictatorship nor the khalifate was the answer, and with the Arab spring they have begun to demand more of themselves and their rulers.
We are all changed as a result of 9/11. The message that I would like to have learned is of tolerance, and intolerance.
No tolerance for the likes of Osama bin Laden nihilism. No spineless acceptance of mores that undermine our own. No multi-cultural embrace of slave-like conditions for women. No blind alliances with oppressors of their own people.
At the same time, we must breed tolerance, and by that I mean knowledge of others. Not all Muslims are fundamentalists. Only a handful are terrorists. There are reasons why some turn to terror. Our luxurious lives are connected to the real lives of others. And sometimes comes at their expense. That festers and rots.
Osama bin Laden, thankfully, is dead. An evil removed from this world.
As for the rest of us, we have all fallen into knowledge from which we’d been blissfully protected. And while we have suffered for it, we are wiser too.
I would not have chosen this path to understanding.
But at least let us not forget the lessons of 9-11, that have come at so great a price.