Hope in the Midst of Tragedy

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Like countless others, I remember exactly where I was on the morning of 9/11/2001.

I was in grade 11 at CHAT, sitting in my Tanach class. Suddenly, the P.A. system crackled to life: “We have an announcement to make: there has been a terrorist attack in the United States. We are asking that no one go outside for lunch, please.”

And that was it.

No specificity, no details, and no reassurance given to 1,200 students who were just told that there was a terror attack, but left to guess who the target was, how many had been killed, and whether there was a danger in going outside for lunch.

I can recall my immediate thoughts upon hearing the announcement: the terror attack must have been against a Jewish target – a shul probably – why else would they make the announcement in the middle of class in the middle of the morning? It was also about a year into the Second Intifada in Israel, and we were hearing about terror attacks all the time. So it was probably some terror group finally reaching outside Israel and into the United States striking a Jewish target, in an effort to scare the Diaspora Jewish community too. That would explain why we were asked not to go outside at lunch: we go to the largest Jewish day school in Canada – we were probably a target too. Hopefully eating lunch inside would keep us safe.

This was also pre-15-year-olds having cell-phones at school; thus our news intake was, obviously, limited to what we heard over the P.A. system. So, pretty unfazed, we sat through the rest of class while chaos literally rained down on New York City.

After class, and I don’t recall exactly in what order this all happened, I learned the following: A rocket had hit the Pentagon in Washington, a plane flew into one (or both?) of the World Trade Centre towers in New York, it was possible that a father of a girl in my class worked in one of the WTC towers, and that he was in New York that day, that synagogues and Jewish day schools across the United States (and apparently Canada) were on lockdown, office towers in downtown Toronto were being evacuated, and people were crying in the school hallways.

At lunch, since we were all inside, someone found and plugged in a TV and tuned to CBC. There, trying to catch a glimpse of the TV from out in the hallway (as the class itself was filled with teachers and students all trying to see the news) I saw for the first time the now iconic images of a plane flying into the WTC, and the looks of utter disbelief on the news anchors’ faces.

It was shocking. What I remember most vividly, aside from the obvious carnage, was the sheets of paper raining down across Manhattan’s Financial District and the silhouettes of people, parents, professionals, someone’s children, jumping out of the burning, doomed towers.

Today, almost 15 years later, this imagery remains vivid. It is seared into my mind as my sort of “political awakening,” as it no doubt was for many who saw it that day. But I was 16, and aside from the fact that I knew that bombs were going off on buses in Jerusalem, I did not, and could not, really understand the hatred out there. I couldn’t get how it could make its way across the Atlantic and turn ordinary airplanes into weapons of mass destruction. And, like the rest of the world, I could not foresee what kind of a turning point 9/11 would be for world events.

That was 15 years ago, and the world has indeed changed tremendously since then. To many, the world seems more dangerous than it was on 9/10, and that is a function both of the fact that, sure, terrorism has grown more rampant and of the little device we all carry around in our pockets that live-streams all the world’s news to us every minute of every day. We know more and, by knowing more, we focus on the bad, rather than the good.

There are some who argue that the world in 2016 is more peaceful than it has been at any point in human history. I haven’t done the research, but perhaps it is? What I know is that bad news makes headlines, and good news rarely does. And this point is perfectly exemplified in my own memory as I sit at my desk writing this article.

When I think about watching the events on 9/11 on TV, I also think about other things I remember watching on TV. The events that immediately come to mind are when, at the age of just six, I watched the footage of scud rockets raining down on Tel Aviv in 1991, wondering if I would see my Israeli aunt, like so many others, sitting on the street wearing a gas mask. I remember watching the news crews arrive at the scene of Princess Diana’s car crash in 1997, watching Space Shuttle Columbia explode on its descent in February 2003, bombs falling on Baghdad the following month, and the devastation in Japan following the earthquake in March 2011. I recall watching the aftermath of numerous suicide bombs on the streets in Israel and the devastation in Indonesia after a tsunami took a quarter of a million lives in December 2004. When I try to remember watching particular events on TV, this is, sadly, where my mind goes.

But, as I dig deeper and try to get past that negativity, I remember those beautiful events too – that time that in my grandmother’s living room in Johannesburg on February 11, 1990, when I watched Mandela walk out of prison, or the time I cried while watching Barack Obama take the oath of office on January 20, 2009, becoming America’s first African American President. Those are the good stories – memories that don’t always come to mind first – because perhaps fear evokes a different response than hope.

In any event, as I dig really deep, one particularly hopeful memory comes to mind: September 13, 1993. I was sitting on a couch next to my other grandmother in her basement in Toronto. I was eight years old and, for whatever reason, I was not at school. We were sitting together watching TV as Yitzchak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shook hands at the White House and signed the Oslo Accords with President Clinton. I asked my grandmother who those people were shaking hands, what were they doing, and why was it so special? She put her hands on mine and said “They’ve made peace, after all this time. Let’s hope it lasts.

9/11 is certainly a vivid memory, as it will always be. However, it behooves us to remember the good with the bad. And so, as 9/11 approaches, I also remember 2/11, 1/20, and 9/13, days where hope was restored, where good prevailed, and where the sorrow of yesterday was replaced by the joy of tomorrow.

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