I was 26 when 9/11 happened.
I watched it unfold while in the middle of my normal weekday routine. I was sober for two months—on my own—after an embarrassing moment in July when I swore off using again. I was in hopeful spirits and a healthy headspace.
That morning I was on the treadmill at World Gym when I looked up from my workout to see a smoking World Trade Centre live on CP24.
The TV banner stated that a plane had crashed into the tower. I dismissed it as a small plane that had probably had an accident and I kept working out. Shortly after, I looked up again during the exact moment of an explosion in the second tower. I don’t remember specifically how the news unfolded from there, but by the time my workout was done, the screen was claiming another plane crash and multiple terrorist attacks in the USA.
I went home for a shake and a shower. I believe one of the towers had fallen by the time I left the gym.
At home, I called the pub I worked at to see if my co-workers had heard what was happening. I was a little frightened. My friends at the pub had indeed been watching the events and also expressed concern. I avoided turning on the TV at home and hurried downtown to work.
The moment I arrived, my colleague and friend Kim greeted me at the door and informed me the second tower had fallen. The TVs were blaring in the empty pub. I was scared. I placed my cellphone on the counter beside the servers’ computer after calling a New Yorker friend to see if he was alright. I left a voicemail and went about opening the restaurant, waiting for him to call me back.
As the morning went on, we learned of the Pentagon explosion and the crash of Flight 93. The financial towers in downtown Toronto were evacuated, and we ended up slammed at the pub. During the lunch rush, while we were all watching the TV at every chance, I passed through the dining room and looked up to see the first shots of Osama Bin Laden speaking on camera, and the reporters claiming that he was the mastermind suspect.
I had no experience witnessing terrorism up until this point, other than the movies I had watched about hijacked planes. When I saw reels of Bin Laden speaking, and the news teams reporting he deliberately coordinated these mass-murders, I froze. I saw a man in a turban-style head dress who was responsible for a terrorist attack that was so close to home, and that, in a way, we were all in the middle of. I remember thinking it was going to be the end of the world.
Sometime during that day, I learned about suicide bombers, and how they sacrificed their lives to execute these atrocious attacks on humanity. I couldn’t wrap my head around how someone could be willing to die in order to kill others.
I did hear from my friend in New York who had been trapped in Manhattan (his apartment was in Brooklyn). He said the New York sky was red and black and that it looked like they were in hell, but that he was okay and would chat in more detail in the coming days.
I don’t believe I slept much that night, and instead, I spent most of my time watching live updates on CNN—something that became a bit of a habit over the following weeks.
The next evening I reluctantly went to a Backstreet Boys concert at the Air Canada Centre with my friend Justyne. The band took a moment of silence for one of their crew who had perished aboard one of the planes in the attack. During the entire concert, I was anxious and almost waiting for the ceiling to come crashing down under the impact of a plane flying into the arena.
And so it went. I was terrified. Terrorized. I began to live in a state of constant fear that an attack could happen at any moment. I wanted to avoid the crowded subways, the busy streets. I contemplated moving back to northwestern Ontario. And I will admit, I was scared of men wearing turban-style headgear and women in niqabs and burkas (terms I didn’t know at the time). I sort of understood that religious extremists had committed these atrocities, but part of me thought it would be best if these people—these Muslims—weren’t allowed in North America at all. Why wouldn’t the government just not allow them into our country in the first place? I was scared. And I was mad.
Without getting into too much detail, I believe I was overcome by the fear and emotion I felt during that time, and it became the catalyst to my final drug debauch one week later—the one that led me to my bottom and to eventually sobering up.
Fast forward, I’m 14 years sober and leaving the yoga studio after teaching my Friday night class on November 13. The news screens in the gym are reporting orchestrated mass terrorist attacks in Paris.
Terrorists had walked into public areas and indiscriminately shot at and killed many innocent people. And suicide bombers had blown themselves up at a stadium to kill more and instill fear in the world.
I instantly grieved for the loss of innocent life, and tried to empathize with the horror the victims might have experienced in their final moments. I was shaken. I was sad for the poor people who died that night.
But I wasn’t scared. I had a few quick thoughts about what I would be like in a similar situation, but I didn’t feel fear.
And unlike in 2001, I didn’t jump to vilifying an entire religion.
I had seen a few posts around election time about Trudeau planning to allow 25,000 Syrian refugees into the country, but as someone who is not really interested in politics, I was ignorant to what it meant.
Scouring through my Facebook feeds (something that didn’t exist in 2001) over the days following the Paris attacks, I watched people condemning the idea of allowing refugees in Canada. I watched people shaming people for their views on refugees. I watched people shaming people for standing in solidarity with Paris, but not with other terrorist victim cities like Beirut or Baghdad. I watched people shaming people for not being informed or for being racist or for being xenophobic (a word I actually just learned). And then the reports of Islamophobic attacks started coming in; a mosque burned in Ontario and a woman attacked while picking her children up from school; the smashing of windows at a Hindu temple in Kitchener.
Amidst all of this chaos and division, I also saw people beginning to talk about love and inclusion being the only way to heal these troubled times; to be the best—most giving and loving—people we can be, and not give into the fear that was the intent of the terrorists to begin with.
I’ll admit, given everything I see and read, I believe we live in troubled times. And I believe a lot of the problems are exacerbated through social media. And I also believe that the only way we can truly change the world is by beginning with ourselves.
I was swayed in a number of directions when perusing through the constant war that was my Facebook feed, but in the end, I didn’t compromise my integrity and side with anyone else’s beliefs. In fact, what I read and what I learned prompted me to intentionally be more outwardly kind.
I think I’m a pretty decent guy to begin with, and I’m continually working on myself—not because I think I should be morally better—but because I want to be happier in my own life.
Maybe it’s because I’m tired of seeing negativity amidst my daily urban portage and social media onslaught, or maybe it’s because I’ve grown and evolved since the first time I experienced terror 14 years ago, but I found myself on the Monday after the Paris attacks noticing all of the good unfolding before me on the subway; a man rushing to the aid of an older lady who fell when the train began to move; two women who held doors open for me—and smiled; young people making room for the elderly to sit. I was moved by what I saw.
I was inspired to be a part of this ‘good’—not theoretically, but expressively.
When I got off the subway, I saw a Muslim woman running and pushing her baby carriage toward the door I was exiting. I often hold doors for people out of moral habit due to a decent upbringing I suppose, but today I decided to hold the door specifically because I wanted to make her day a little better, a little easier.
So, I held the door for her and for the person after her. They both smiled and thanked me. And I continued about my day–a little happier, a little more hopeful and–I think–a little changed for the better.