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9/11 and the Face of America

11 September 2001. I was tuned in to CNN and lazily cooking a meal when the mundane news report was interrupted by the anchor’s voice saying that said there was breaking news coming in from New York City: a jetliner had crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. My attention was immediately captivated; and I walked the short distance to the television set to turn the volume up louder.

Then the video feed started to stream in, showing the upper floors of one of the centre’s towers ablaze. It was bizarre and horrifying. How could something like that have happened?

The initial thoughts that flooded through my mind were those of mechanical failure; that the pilots somehow lost control of the plane and, because the Big Apple is the city of skyscrapers, inadvertently crashed the plane into the building. Even the reporter thought as much; for a plane to be deliberately flown into a skyscraper in a blatant act of terrorism was something that – at the time – never would have occurred to anyone.

Yet, in the ensuing minutes, the world lost its innocence. While I only saw the first plane crash as it was flashed later by CNN courtesy of an amateur videographer, I actually saw the second plane as it slammed into the South Tower.

If you see something like that as it happens, you cannot have a reaction. You just continue to stare dumbly for a few seconds as the brain struggles to come to terms with something it has not previously processed before.

As I did in the ensuing moments – I just stared dumbly at the television set until the realization came to me – and to others similarly glued to their television sets the world over – amidst the reporter’s cries that the two crashes were no random accidents.

America was under attack. Indeed, soon followed news that another plane had slammed into the Pentagon miles away in the nation’s capital; and that a fourth plane was prevented from reaching another target as it was brought down by its own passengers somewhere in Pennsylvania.

As one horrific scene after the other was flashed before the entire world by television crews that had come to realize that something totally extraordinary had just happened, if at all I was asked to pick out something that I felt singularly more horrifying than the rest, it would have to be the sight of people jumping to their deaths rather than be incinerated while still alive by the raging blaze in the upper floors of the Twin Towers.

God forbid that you and I will ever find ourselves in a situation when the choices are death by one means and death by another. In the end, there are no choices at all. I can still recall inwardly cringing at the very thought of having to jump from hundreds of feet up in the air to meet certain death moments later on the concrete pavements of the city.

Then of course, hours later, for a reason at the time unknown but subsequently understood to be the weakening of the building’s steel spine by the unimaginable heat of the fire that raged within, the two towers collapsed into rubble, one after the other in a mesmerizing slow dance of death. It was simply the saddest sight, twin structures that elegantly rose into the skies to stand among a nation’s most recognizable icons now coming down in a godforsaken cloud of dust.

Then, the videos streamed again: those of people fleeing from the site, their horror accentuated by the cakes of dust on their faces, their hairs and their entire beings. It was surreal.

A whole decade later, I can still remember the chilling thought that crossed my mind after the second jetliner crashed into the South Tower and I realized that both crashes were acts of terrorism. Who could possibly hate America so much to even contemplate doing something as nauseating as that?

11 September 2000. A colleague was due to fly out later that night to San Francisco for an official visit to a school in the Bay Area. I was supposed to fly out with him; but my visa application was for reasons only the consul could explain denied. My boss had tried to pull some strings inside the embassy and was hoping that by some miracle my visa would be released in time for me to fly out with my colleague. I had a couple of bulky bags sitting in the van with all my clothes just to humour him; while we all met up at this restaurant so we could give my colleague a proper send-off meal.

A couple of weeks earlier, I stood before a consul’s window at the embassy and presented my papers. The young woman ahead of me was curtly told that her visa application was denied. She nodded her head bravely; but when she turned around to walk away, I could see tears starting to flow down her cheeks.

Then, it was my turn. I shall not go into the details. The consul probably just did not like my face; or, perhaps, she had given out her quota of visas for the day, who knows? I could accept that my visa application was being rejected. It is no different from asking to see the inside of a house knowing all the while that it is the prerogative of the homeowner to say yes or no.

What was not acceptable was the arrogance with which my visa application was refused by the consul. There I stood in my office barong, an administrator of a respectable school, being made to feel so small in a manner we Filipinos will never think of doing to Americans. Even now, I am sure that I felt more humiliated by the treatment that I was getting because I was Filipino rather than by the actual rejection of my application.

I am not naïve and know that we have countrymen who present papers in seeming good faith only to blend right into the landscape and disappear from sight upon arrival on American shores. Not every Filipino dreams the American dream, though; and if that consul paused for even just a moment, she would have realized that had I wanted to work in the United States, I would have tried to do so when I was so much younger instead of in middle age. Was it just unthinkable to that consul that there are, indeed, Filipinos like me who love this country for all its faults and will never exchange it for any other?

My boss’ magic wand was effective, though. I was able to fly out before the month was over.

Once in the States, the Americans I met turned out to be exactly as I knew them to be from movies and television. They would say hello when I got into an elevator. They would nod to me if I encountered them along the sidewalks even though I was a perfect stranger. If I paused to exchange pleasantries, they would stop and be interested in what I had to say about myself and my country. If I entered a shop they would be cordial and eager to help without making me feel that they suspected me of lifting goods from off the shelves. God knows sales assistants in the Philippines do that everywhere you go.

One American I met had heard of my experience at the embassy. I remember having told him, “You, the people I meet along the sidewalks, in shops and restaurants or inside elevators, you are the true face of America. You are a friendly and polite people.” Turning to my experience at the embassy, I asked him the obvious question to ask, “Why do you allow the consuls in your embassies to show the peoples of the world a face of America that is not true?”

Epilogue. There are no words to describe the horror that I felt at seeing jetliners with passengers inside used as missiles in attempts to bring down the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Even just writing this article, I can vividly recall the chill that ran down my spine at seeing that airplane slam into the South Tower. It was inhumane. It was deranged.

Yet, even as I asked in my mind the question who could possibly hate America so much, the truth of the matter was that I probably already knew the answer to my own question. No, I am not even going to discuss Osama Bin Laden. He was just one of many to whom America has been showing a face of arrogance, of self-righteous incorrigibility and of a superiority that is capable of making one feel undeservedly low.

Neither am I referring to the lowly consul who was a mere lackey in a large organization. Instead, it was what she represented: an America that does not want to reach out to those beyond its continental shores who are neither as wealthy nor as powerful; and an America that turns away people from the very same American dream it so loves to brag about to the rest of the world.

It is an America with an ugly face. Regrettably – or, at least from what I saw during my brief visit – this is not the true face of America at all. If the Americans that I met were a true representative sample of what Americans are really like, then Americans are a friendly, polite, loving and hospitable people. The people who hate America are just those who do not get the opportunity to see this face of the country.

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