Op-Ed: My sisters and the long, terrifying shadow of mass violence
In the wake of the mass shooting in El Paso, the deadliest anti-Latino attack in modern U.S. history, my attention seized on the living as much as the dead. I couldn’t shake images of children running across a Walmart parking lot fleeing for their young lives. According to one witness, a young girl ran to a car and frantically (and successfully) tried to open the door. “You could just see the terror in her face,” she said.
Almost 18 years ago the girls running from terror were my twin sisters Joelle and Shauna. They were 15 when they fled the attack on the World Trade Center. Days before, they had transferred to the High School for Leadership and Public Service, a city block from the towers.
Hearing eyewitness accounts of children in El Paso running from bloody chaos, who moments before had excitedly stocked up on back-to-school supplies, reignites the personal horror of Sept. 11 for my sisters and me. Having witnessed the long-term effects of terrorism on my family, I worry about the accumulating trauma on these young mass shooting survivors and their not yet fully formed adolescent brains. They have lost friends, family members, neighbors and the ability to unsee the violence they witnessed. How will this carnage affect them in the months and years to come?
For my sisters and me, that September morning irreparably obliterated a time bursting with promise. As I peeked out the window at that now-infamous, piercing blue sky, I brimmed with the excitement of my senior year of college.
As I watched the towers fall from my bedroom window in Chelsea, Peter Jennings’ somber voice on TV in the background, I felt like those tearful relatives in El Paso being interviewed on TV about searching for their missing loved ones. I couldn’t locate my sisters. I called the school over and over, but no one answered. Subway service stopped before I could hop on a train to find them. I tried to steel myself for the possibility that my sisters might come home in body bags. And I waited.
They finally returned home around 4 p.m., covered in thick white ash, seemingly unharmed. High on adrenaline, they sounded almost upbeat as they chronicled their experiences: the debris and the boot that hit their classroom window, initial confusion about whether to leave the school building or stay put (against the teacher’s orders, the class left en masse), running around the southern tip of Manhattan to escape the dust storm from the towers’ collapse, the kindly businessman who helped them break into a fancy restaurant for shelter, water and tablecloths they used as masks. They pulled from their backpacks charred papers that fluttered from the fallen towers. We saved them in a shoebox, and almost two decades later a whiff from the box brings back that smoky, ruinous day.
In the days and weeks afterward, whenever I asked if they were OK, my sisters replied with an exasperated, “We’re fine.” They weren’t. The unraveling would happen in the months to follow. They cut classes and soon stopped going to school, as if sucked down a harrowing rabbit hole they couldn’t climb out of.
We fought as I pleaded with them to go to school. But who could blame them? For my sisters, school had become the site of a mass murder. Even when they wanted to return, they felt powerless to dig themselves out from under an avalanche of missed work. It’s no surprise that standardized test scores have been shown to drop when a murder happens in a neighborhood.
Five years earlier, we had lost our mother. Sept. 11 compounded our family traumas, blasting a hole though whatever progress we’d made toward healing those wounds. I could never have imagined that with the fallen towers, my relationship with my sisters would also implode. That I’d become estranged from the girls who were my best and often only friends. Years piled up where we didn’t talk.
My sisters turned 33 this summer. We’re finally all speaking again. But I tiptoe around landmines. Communication is fragile. We don’t talk much about certain things, including that day. But my sisters recently opened up a little. Shauna spoke of her participation in a Columbia University study of survivors enrolled in the World Trade Center health registry. “Sometimes I think I’m invincible, like if I’ve survived that, I can survive anything,” she says. That feeling of invincibility may be reflected in the higher rates of risk-taking behavior, such as binge drinking, found among Sept. 11 survivors. Joelle has also spoken of residual trauma, saying: “That really messed me up more than I thought.”
Both finished their GEDs, though neither completed college. I still mourn the loss of their education, but they have managed to gain some emotional, physical and financial stability despite how the ground shifted beneath their feet and concrete rained down on them that September day. I’m proud of the strong, resilient women they’ve become. Shauna has packed a thousand lives into one, having an endless series of adventures. Joelle is a mother of four, soon to be five, secure in the love of the family she has nurtured.
The terrorism that has reverberated through my family since that Tuesday morning was foreign. Today domestic, white nationalist terrorism threatens us as U.S. citizens of Latin origin. It’s frightening to think about how we could become targets. Since the El Paso shooting, I keep thinking about Joelle, who shops frequently with her children at their local Walmart in Arizona.
My nephews and niece are half-Mexican. They have brown skin and dark hair. They face the risk of becoming the second generation of terrorist attack victims in our family, potential targets of hate, if they wind up in the wrong place at the wrong time — sadly, places like school, the park, the mall, an outdoor festival. Must I be afraid to go to the Cardenas supermarket in my heavily Mexican and Central American neighborhood? Must I fear for my life and those of my family and neighbors because of what we look like, where our families come from, and where we live?
Ya basta. Enough.
Stacy Torres is an assistant professor of sociology at UC San Francisco.
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