As a teenager in South India, Kirthi Jayakumar watched the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks unfold on TV—a moment that forever changed her understanding of peace.
“Two Hindus and two Muslims watched one of the world’s biggest brushes with terrorism.”
On September 11, 2001, at 6pm IST, I was getting my hands decorated with henna. School was closed that day and I had nothing to do. I pestered my parents to take me to the home of Mrs. A, whose skills were highly recommended. The henna was something I had wanted for a long time; I coveted the idea of designs etched onto my palms and the festive smell that the wonder leaf meant for me.
As the kindly lady deftly wove intricate magic in sap green on my hand, we shared a small conversation about ourselves. She told me about her family, about her plans for Eid, and asked me about my plans for Diwali. Mr. A shuffled into the room and greeted me pleasantly. He sat down beside my father, who waited while I got the henna designs done. Mr. A was intrigued by a teenager’s inclination towards henna—especially when there was no occasion needing it—and engaged me in conversation about school, what I wanted to work as, and what I liked studying.
Somewhere during a conversation with my father, Mr. A switched on the television. What we saw next made our breath catch in our throats. An aircraft crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. I remembered the building from a gigantic picture of New York by night that my father held onto for years at home, and now it was fast dissipating into dust. Mrs. A stopped and turned to face the television. For about 20 minutes, we remained transfixed by the horror that unfolded before us. And just when we thought it was surreal, another flight rammed into the South Tower on live television.
It soon became clear that this was no random accident. Mrs. A inhaled sharply, sending up a small prayer to Allah. Mr. A said that it was a terrible, terrible thing—crime or accident, whichever it was. How could anyone even think of planning, leave alone doing such a thing? By late evening, we understood that this was a massive plan, with masterminds of incomparable deviousness behind it.
You might wonder why this was such a big deal for a teenager in a city in South India, watching the attacks of 9/11 unfold on television. Like many others watching around the world, I was far away and personally unaffected. But that day taught me some important lessons.
I was sitting with two people who practiced Islam, and in the course of that entire 90 minutes I spent at their house, they expressed nothing besides outrage, anger, and grief at the attacks. In the days that followed, I read and heard of the hate that was unleashed at people who practiced Islam. Islamophobia became a word in our vocabulary, a species in the genus of xenophobia.
I learned that radical elements exist everywhere—whether in the form of linguistic exclusion or in the form of overt violence in the name of religion. But that should not, and does not discount humanism. I believe that who you are is not determined by the group you belong to—but the choices you make. I believe that it is your actions, your words, and your choices that decide what side you are on, and that there is a thin red line dividing the two sides.
In those days that followed, there was talk about terrorism, inextricably linking it with Islam in the minds of most people around me. I was young, and my questioning capacity didn’t extend beyond that of a teenager’s. When I did begin asking why people attributed the crime of some to a whole community, what I heard in response was mostly ignorance. I heard ignorance as silence, ignorance as wrong answers, ignorance as anger, ignorance as mob-mentality.
By and by, the answers came to me. We live in a world of fear, intimidation, and ignorance. We love to demonize the other when it is an unknown, but the moment the other becomes a “known”, we can fiercely protect it like our own. I learned that peace is a choice. I learned that it is the choice of the courageous, not the resort of the weak. I learned that there is a huge difference between culture and religion, tradition and faith, radicalism and ideology.
All of these lessons began with 90 minutes that I will always remember. Two Hindus and two Muslims watched one of the world’s biggest brushes with terrorism. We watched, as humans. We felt the pain, as humans. We felt the anger, as humans. And when we act, we must act as humans.
This story was published as part of the Future of Security Is Women digital event and is sponsored by our partner Our Secure Future. World Pulse runs Story Awards year round—share your story with us, and you could be our next Featured Storyteller! Learn more.