As I am sure is true for most of us I vividly remember the televised scenes of the first plane flying into one of the towers of the World Trade Center. It was sometime between 0700-0730 Denver time and I was getting ready for work. It quickly became obvious that this was a terrorist attack and not an accident. I distinctly remember saying to my partner David: “boy, there are going to be a lot of Arab people die for this”. It was most certainly not a wish of any sort on my part that mostly Muslim middle-eastern folk needed to pay but rather was said with sad resolve. I knew in my gut that the revenge our country would exact would most certainly track along the lines of an “eye for an eye”, a response very lacking in compassion.
One would assume that an “eye for an eye” would involve retribution on those directly responsible. That is not how it actually turned out however. Oh, I did follow with great interest and perhaps even a bit of vengeful glee the pursuit of Osama Bin Laden in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, the completely falsified case made to invade Iraq soon made me realize there were very nefarious motives afoot and totally fabricated by the powers that be, our duly elected leaders of the day. I never bought the propaganda so widespread at the time that “they hated us for our freedoms”. Now fifteen plus years into the “war on terror” the millions of deaths of so often innocent men, women and children directly related to that ‘war on terror’ has given generations of people a reason to hate us.
By September of 2001 we were really just finally coming out of the nightmare that had been AIDS for the past nearly twenty years. I was well into my twenty-one-year stint as the nursing manager of the AIDS Clinic here in Denver. Perhaps it was my first hand experience with deaths’ by the hundreds of mostly young and vibrant folks from HIV infection that helped inform my own emotional and intellectual response to the tragedy of 9/11. The deaths of those on the planes were certainly quick if not immediate, though the minutes before and the realization of what was to occur must have been unbelievably horrific.
The death I had become all too familiar with in the two decades before 9/11 was often very protracted and painful over months and sometimes years. My own HIV infection was turning around thanks to the new meds but it was certainly not assured that I would not succumb and die a death similar to so many others I had known and cared for. I do remember pondering on occasion whether or not a very sudden death in a plane crash was not a preferable way to go. Remember nobody gets out alive and perhaps it is a most wonderful gift to be able to call a halt to it all on your own accord.
I was though somewhat reassured by the amount of empathy I was able to muster for the 9/11 victims and most certainly for the pain their surviving friends and family members were feeling and undoubtedly still do today. Twenty years of watching lovers, friends and hundreds of others I had come to know in a caregiving role die so often very shitty deaths had apparently not completely hardened my soul.
Maybe those many hours on the cushion, most often unsuccessfully trying to focus on my breath, had paid off after all. Or maybe it is just the result of the privilege of getting older. I see my empathy for all sentient beings increasing over time. Having started out as quite the self-centered little prick I find this empathic evolution a validation for this whole amazing opportunity of having manifested into a human form. Sixty-eight years into the trip and I am still here- one lucky son-of-a- bitch I’d say.