For the past two years, I have spent April 20 in New York City because of work. I live in Colorado, and maybe because legalized medical marijuana has turned Denver into nothing short of a Rocky Mountain Amsterdam, young Brooklyn and Manhattan hipsters love to say, “Hey, happy 4-20!”
Shut up. I don’t want to hear it. I went to high school in Littleton. April 20, 1999 was the day of the Columbine High School shooting. Wishing me a happy 4-20 is right up there with wishing me a happy 9-11, only Columbine seared itself in my memory much more deeply than the World Trade Center. I remember watching the planes go into the buildings on live TV during my first period class, and I remember being pulled out of school for a week because of a fear of backlash because my Persian name sounds close enough to that of an Arab’s. I remember coming back to school to see a United Airlines flag hanging in our school cafeteria because the son of Jason Dahl, head pilot of the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, went this same high school. It hung next to our school’s American flag.
Littleton has an odd connection to violent tragedies. On the outskirts, there is the federal prison that housed Timothy McVeigh during the Oklahoma City bombing trial in Denver. Then Columbine happened. Then my classmate’s dad was killed on 9-11. Then there was the Deer Creek Middle School shooting. When you have that many events related to a particular geographic location, it’s hard to separate one from the other. Columbine happened my freshman year of high school, 9-11 in my senior year. I almost can’t think or talk about one of those events without bringing in the other and the way my world changed in between. In many ways, Columbine prepared me for 9-11, and 9-11 solidified Columbine.
I know it’s easy to argue otherwise — that the two are nothing like each other and that the death toll at Columbine is nothing compared to that on 9-11, that Columbine was a school shooting and 9-11 was an act of terrorism. But what is terrorism really? And who’s to say school shootings don’t fall under that category, as well? For me, the two events felt similar in that they were both invasions of what we believe to be protected spaces — schools and the United States. They both took away our sense of safety in whatever structures we looked to for defense and, in effect, turned otherwise innocent civilians into possible suspects.
Post-Columbine our school went into lockdown. We had to show our IDs to get in at the beginning of the day, which made no sense to me, because even with that measure, the shooters still would have gotten in. Monitors were posted at every exit, and we weren’t allowed to go to the bathroom in the middle of class without packing up all of our belongings and taking our backpacks with us. Anyone in a long black coat carried the connotation of “Trenchcoat Mafia”. And in an attempt to find answers behind why such a thing could happen in an otherwise cookie-cutter suburban neighborhood, people started turning to Jesus left and right. And evangelical movements started in the name of the victims. Neighbors tied blue and silver ribbons to their mailboxes and bought “Respect Life” plates for their cars. Columbine became an attack on Christianity and good students who believed in God.
Post-9-11, boarding passes were required to get through airport security, which I never fully understood because if that were in place before, the hijackers would have still gotten through. The Department of Homeland Security took center stage. America set itself up against an Axis of Evil. We suddenly found ourselves in a perpetual terror threat of orange. And my luggage started getting randomly checked every time I flew. Anyone who looked remotely Arab carried the undertone of a terrorist. And in an attempt to find answers behind tragedy and chaos, people turned to Jesus again, and it became okay to ridicule and torment Muslims, because despite the White House saying otherwise in press conferences, enough Americans talked themselves into believing that democracy was in a war with Islam. Flags popped up everywhere. As a result, I began using them not as a measurement of national loyalty, but as a gauge of which neighborhoods I could feel safe in. Where I lived, the greater the density of American flags, the more prevalent the mindset was that Muslims as a whole attacked our country, which morphed 9-11 into an attack on anyone who doesn’t use the word Allah.
Both events had easy outsiders to cast fear on — easy bad guys. And they both gave us opportunities to fixate on blame as a method of justice rather than self-improvement. What good are we doing to honor the victims if we use their murders as a mask for self-inflicted ignorance? Is this how we remember them? Through panic against someone innocent who looks close enough to the hijackers? Forgive me for feeling like the whole culture of fear that seems to have defined our era has also regressed Americans to the maturity of grade-school kindergartners.
I love my NPR and my daily evening news, but last weekend, I couldn’t bear to listen to either. Like a person who wants to remember a dead person alive, I wanted to get away and remember my America from before high school, before violence and paranoia took over widespread collective consciousness. On 4-20, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold took my friend and my innocence away from me. On 9-11, hijackers and other Americans took away my country. Just like I learned to fear the overlooked safety of classrooms, I also learned to fear the habitual sighting of my country’s flag. I entered college feeling fragmented because with invasion comes holes — like entry and exit wounds — and the healing process never lines them up. You’re stuck creating a new self with gaps and pieces that no longer fit.
Maybe it’s time we Americans accept that what was, and what is, are never going to fit. And instead of forcing them to, let’s find a new piecing because maybe some of those gaps are meant to bring in new air. And maybe some of those pieces were knocked out to teach us to take notice of how we pick them up and restore the holes and wounds.
Photo Credit David Keyzer via flickr