That morning I stood at the Chambers Street subway entrance, looking up at the silvery Twin Towers, three blocks away, with a beautiful azure sky in the background. I was not to see what my wife witnessed an hour later. She stood on the courtyard of the elementary school, P.S. 234, two blocks from the towers, while the two jumbo jets cast long shadows on her (she knew right away that this was no "accident") and over 8,000 children attending schools around the towers: It was their first day of school. I was headed uptown for an artists' prayer meeting. After hearing of the "accident," I rushed home, only to be trapped in the subway for 45 minutes. By the time I came out, two miles north at the 14th Street station, the towers were gone.
The frantic search for my family ended with good news that they were all safely evacuated. We realized that many of the parents in the towers were spared, since they ignored the message to stay in their cubicles and came down to be with their children. Faced with living near what became Ground Zero, we heard many predict a mass exodus of families from the downtown area, but that never happened.
We did consider moving out of New York City, but then we started to listen to the voices of our children, like our middle son C.J., who was to graduate from P.S. 234 that year. "Dad, I want to have our graduation in that building," he said with conviction.
Many families did choose to stay, raising millions of dollars to install an airflow system inside school buildings to protect students from the contaminated air outside, finding temporary classrooms, and moving fall soccer leagues up north so at least on Saturday mornings, the kids could feel normal again.
The smoldering fires of Ground Zero finally died out after Christmas and the children returned to their building in January 2002. The war zone has since shifted to Afghanistan, and "Ground Zero" very quickly became a tourist spot, full of cheap trinkets, a chosen destination for hundreds of protests, including a later controversy about the building of a mosque two blocks from our loft. Our children learned to ignore them, and roll their eyes when American flags are used for all sorts of competing agendas.
Our children have grown now. My eldest is out of college, happily married with a child born this summer. My youngest daughter is now headed to college. Watching them grow was to rediscover, one day at a time, what vengeance and terrorism could not steal away. Listening to them, I sense a new awareness, both an aversion to extreme ideologies of all kinds and the embracing of a new pluralism coupled with a willingness to stand for the values they hold dear. In other words, they did not grow up with polarized vision for the world, but an increased sense of empathy, upholding the importance of shared values and friendships, and, therefore, clinging onto their humanity.
C.J. is studying music and philosophy in college. Every year he and his friends, mostly from the same elementary school, organize an exhibit and concert in Brooklyn. Artists and musicians they have become. All of my children are involved in some sort of creative journey, even my eldest, with a math degree from New York University, started his own creative design collective, and my daughter this summer has been interning for a fashion designer.
I wonder if Osama bin Laden and his fellow terrorists ever anticipated that the children of 9/11 would become artists, musicians, and creatives. They probably imagined more soldiers and "greedy, materialistic Americans" but certainly not artists. It occurs to me now that becoming artists would be the greatest repudiation of their evil acts. These creative children instinctively resist terrorism, seeing it as a failed mechanism of imagination. Terror does not birth something generative into the world; instead, terrorists steal away dreams and hopes, holding the world captive in fear, breathing death out the poisoned well of their ideological fantasy.
My art and my writing have been my witness and my protest. Art's power rests in the ushering of mystery into the world, a mystery of transcendence, of deep longings and desires, and ultimately, a path toward a fully thriving humanity. The legacy of 9/11 does not have to end in death and wars, but in the sacred process of a life of creativity being passed on from generation to generation.
-Makoto Fujimura is an artist whose work is on exhibit worldwide and is the author of Refractions: A Journey of Faith, Art and Culture. A presidential appointee to the National Council on the Arts and founder of the International Arts Movement, he was WORLD's 2005 Daniel of the Year.