On September 11, 2011, my classmates and I were in middle school, three blocks away from the World Trade Center. Many of us also lived in the neighborhood directly in the vicinity of the Twin Towers, and a handful of us attempted to make it home after the second tower had been hit. We found ourselves running for our lives, being engulfed in the cloud, watching as people died in front of us, and either continued to live in a war zone—or lost our homes entirely —for a very, very long time after that.
Worse than the physical damage was the psychological fallout that resulted from prolonged exposure to these events while living in a city full of trauma triggers that remained on high alert.
When we had access to newspapers and spotty TV service again, the media showed us, and told us, very clearly what “the face of evil” looked like. At 12 years old, they were training us to feel fear whenever someone who looked a certain way on the subway happened to be holding a backpack or a suitcase.
And still, when I look back on my Writer’s Notebook entries from those months, and when I speak with my former classmates on the subject today, one thing is clear: We always knew that we could not blame an entire group of people for the actions of some horrible people who misappropriated the tenets of their religion in an extreme way.
Fast forward to September of 2016, and I am Skyping with children who read an article about my experience on 9/11 in Scholastic’s Scope magazine. They emailed me questions ahead of our session like, “Do you hate all Muslim people now? Are you mad at them?” and then, after the garbage can attacks in New York later in the month, “Do you feel afraid? Are you hiding right now?”
Each time I gave them the same answer: Today, just like when I was 12, I understand that a few bad people who do bad things do not represent an entire population, just like there are people who do bad things who unfortunately come in all races, genders, religions and ages. We have to focus on the people who do good things when the bad things happen.
So when Donald Trump pulled his move putting a temporary stop to immigration from certain countries, I thought, How do I continue to try and teach peace, tolerance and correctly educate kids after this? How are parents supposed to explain this to their children? The truth is, terrorism is everywhere, and it’s even born here: in Boston, in New York, in Florida, in Virginia.
I also felt that familiar fear of retaliation that was shared by some young survivors the night that it was announced Osama bin Laden had been captured and killed in May of 2011. You would think that after living a life full of fear, anxiety, panic, depression and chaos while growing up, I would be rallying to do anything possible that would keep “terrorists” from entering the country. But as an adult who has found recovery and a sound, rational school of thought to live by, I felt that the judicial order suspending Trump’s immigration ban was a huge win for me, and for all of us, even though terrorism had such a traumatizing effect on my life.
I’m not a political expert, but I know enough to realize that this is the wrong way to try and solve this problem.
Friday night, a good friend of mine posted on Facebook about a number to call to weigh in with comments to the National Security Council to protest Trump strategist Steve Bannon. It came just a few hours after another story I wrote was published in which I interviewed millennials about how they cope with their anxiety around Trump’s decisions and overall presidency. Even I thought, they won't listen to those calls.
Turns out, they're listening, and it's time for us to be heard.
Almost everyone I spoke with said that they have coped by taking action: by marching, by peacefully protesting, by calling or emailing people in power, by making donations to the ACLU. Even though these actions were small, they hoped that one day their voices would be heard—or in the case of this past week’s peaceful “Bodega Strike” in Brooklyn, actions would speak louder than words.
One young man in particular said that he finds some consolation in the fact that people are banding together to try and take action, but he still felt “bleak” because the people in power weren’t listening or doing anything about it. Today, it all changed. These actions have undoubtedly added up. I take that as a sign.
Ultimately, for me, this is not really about politics. It’s about human decency, being correctly informed, and knowing that sometimes there is a very clear right from wrong that you need to fight for.
Naturally, we can’t attribute such a victory to the influence of the people only—there are level-headed and reasonable people in power who care about our safety and our country’s founding principles who have managed to, at least for now, put a stop to this madness.
Before I end, let’s go back in time once more, to the “Ground Zero Mosque” issue of 2010. It was a pretty big deal here in Lower Manhattan back in 2010, but people around the country also decided to take up positions. They were all debating whether it was okay to put the place of prayer so close to what was then still pretty much a hole in the ground where the World Trade Center had been.
Because my father was on the Community Board for the neighborhood, and the board voted not to weigh in on the matter at all, they were accused by some of “supporting terrorism,” and my father got calls to the house in the form of death threats. As the protests continued, I got a photo message from the editor of the local paper I was writing for while still in college; he had gotten a black eye while confronting a man who was wiping his behind with a page from the Quran.
What most people don’t know is that Trump had reportedly offered to buy the mosque for $6 million on the condition that they moved it five blocks over, stating that his whole reason for doing so was to avoid a “divisive situation.”
It was then that I felt certain I would dedicate a majority of my journalism career to writing stories that mattered, and continued to try and focus on positive and inspiring stories about people whose continued efforts really make an impact on the world. We need to focus our attention not on what is wrong with the world, but what is right.
So while there is undoubtedly a long and still terrifying road ahead of us, no matter what happens next, today should be marked as a day full of hope. Today, we were actually heard. Hopefully, although it’s doubtful, our president recognizes that this “evil” he has tried to put a generalized face to is actually staring him right back in the mirror, and we see him.
This president has made us feel afraid, so afraid that someone in my position might even hesitate to write this op-ed. He has all but persecuted certain races, religions and an entire gender, and the right to free speech and freedom of the press.
It may sound ironic, but still, the message is clear, and I need to help send it: We are going to continue to fight in the most dignified ways possible because the last thing we want is another war.
Helaina Hovitz is an editor, journalist, and author of After 9/11. She has written for The New York Times, Salon, Glamour, Teen Vogue, VICE, Reader’s Digest, Forbes, The New York Observer and many others. She is also the co-creator and Editorial Director of Headlines for the Hopeful. Visit her on Twitter, Facebook, or HelainaHovitz.com.