I have told this story many times to friends.
I just woke up from sleep. It was sometime between 8AM and 9AM. My first semester at Michigan. The first or the second week of class. Chemistry class was due at 10AM. Or really, ten after ten. It was Michigan time, you see.
I needed to print some notes and check my email before class. So, I came down from my room and saw a notice on the door of the computing lab at the basement of the Michigan Union. There was a national emergency, it said. The office was closed. I had no idea what the emergency was about.
I logged on the computer, went on Yahoo! and saw a burning World Trade Center. This must be a hoax, I told myself. It was too outrageous to believe. I dismissed it.
I was young, barely 19, and was still processing what was going on.
I went to class anyway, not wanting to miss anything. I rushed across the Diag, on a possibly clear blue morning.
There was none to be had. The professor was there and the class was a little bit more than half-full, but everybody came to realize something bigger was happening. The Twin Towers had collapsed. Class, dismissed.
Elsewhere, there were talks of repercussion. Friends through emails were warning of backlash against Muslim students. That also included most Malaysian students in the United States. There was fear.
I had heard of stories of xenophobia elsewhere, but I did not suffer from it throughout my 4 years as a Michigan undergraduate. Not ever. Maybe it was the liberal nature of Ann Arbor compared to some other parts of the US, but never once I became a victim of xenophobia.
The weeks and months following the attack formed lasting impression of the US society in my mind. It was one of admiration. There were fierce debates throughout the years about what was right and what was wrong. But the society itself survived the illiberal tidal wave that threatened individual liberty. Coming from a relatively, very much closed society that prevailed in Malaysia then, the societal dynamic of the new world was enticing and refreshing. I was impressed at the US society despite all the criticisms against it.
It was in the US where I found my values.
I have always said that I became a libertarian because of my experience in Michigan. Now, I think I became a civil libertarian because of the September 11 attack. I did not have a label to point at then, but in retrospect, I knew September 11 was the seed for me.
I saw how a free society can regulate itself and overcome fear and distrust. There was little prejudice around even after the attack to completely unravel the argument that a free society will self-destruct, an idea that was prevalent in Malaysia, and maybe still is.
And I saw how freedom needed to be defended from fear and distrust. I saw friends were forced to report to the Department of Homeland Security in Detroit regularly, just because they came from certain countries. Every time I needed to board the plane, the security team would select me for extra screening, just because I am a Malaysia. I took that as racial profiling and I despised that. It was insulting.
That too, strengthened my view on racial discrimination.
I visited New York later in 2002. I visited the site of the World Trade Center. It moved me.
September 11 was not just some event that happened on the other side of the world. It happened on my side of the planet. It deeply was personal.