Friday, September 11, 2015

A 9/11 Double Mourning

Tanya Domi was a graduate student at Columbia University on September 11, 2001. She was already in mourning when the planes hit the World Trade Center on that fateful day. Those terrible events sealed her identity as a proud New Yorker. This article was originally published on September 11, 2011 by The New Civil Rights Movement. 

At the 116th Columbia University subway station, the Number 1 and then Number 2 subway train station sign said, “All Trains Slow Today,” written in chalk on a wall board, startling me as I walked past the hurried makeshift sign and up the steps, entering the university's Morningside Heights campus at about 9:25 a.m. on September 11, 2001.

I thought to myself…”that is strange” because I had never seen such a sign before…never.  It was such a beautiful September fall morning as I walked across bucolic College Walk to the School of International and Public Affairs to attend my Foreign Policies of the Former Soviet Union graduate class. I was in the second-year of my graduate studies in Human Rights following a four-year tour as a State Department contractor working in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where I had contributed to the implementation of the U.S.-brokered Dayton Peace Accords.

Columbia University

I was not a traditional student by any standard measure. And because of my professional background in the military and foreign affairs, I readily knew, more than most Americans that on this day the world as we knew it would be unalterably changed.

Despite my misgivings about the subway sign, I quickly set those feelings aside, to make emotional space, as I was steeped in mourning, reeling from a breakup just two days earlier with my lover. I had once been convinced this was the relationship that I had always longed for — the love of my life with whom I would marry and would live out my days with her to the end.

We had a transnational courtship, initially meeting in Provincetown on Thanksgiving in 1997 while I was in the States for consultations from my State Department posting in Sarajevo. We traveled back and forth for several months meeting for romantic interludes, before she arrived permanently to Bosnia in 1998. It was a whirlwind romance that ended, always to be intertwined and conflated with my 9/11 experience.

I was emotionally crushed.  Every inch of my body hurt. It hurt to breathe. It hurt to move. I was not sleeping much and there was no escaping the pain.

Nonetheless, I persisted, bullish in my plan to obtain a graduate degree. I promised myself that I would attend class religiously, no matter how much I hurt emotionally and physically. I rigorously willed myself to persist in the main occupation of my life, even though I was alone and without intimate friends in New York City.

As I entered the student lounge on the ground floor–a mass of students, 300 or more, were standing shoulder-to-shoulder, straining to watch the televisions affixed to the ceiling.
“What is going on?” I asked a friend, whom I had bonded with during my first year international law class. I was watching the  television as I asked him.  He told me that two planes had flown into the World Trade Center Towers. I immediately said, “Oh my god, that is terrorism! That has to be terrorism!”

Smoke was billowing from one of the towers and I was thinking, “no, this is not a movie!” Cameras panned in on people who were jumping to their deaths. It was an unthinkable, unfathomable and a surreal situation.

The TV anchors were reporting there were a number of unaccounted planes still in the air. Then the report came in that the Pentagon was hit. I was thinking, “Oh my god, America is under attack.”

People were flipping their phones on and I turned to look for mine and realized that in the halcyon fog of my breakup, I had left it at home (of all days to leave your phone at home–to be in a national crisis without one–I began to lament my distractions.) Little did I know that for most of the day, cell phone service was nearly non-existent and land-line phones did not resume working until 4:00 p.m.

And then the first tower dropped, as a collective gasp and shrieks ricocheted across the room–the tower seemed to fall in a slow, excruciating motion, as dust and debris blew up and down and filled the sky in darkness. I could not wrap my brain around the surreal images unfolding in real-time. I knew it was very likely few people could survive such a horrendous calamity.

I turned to my friend and said: “New York City will be fine. Giuliani will do his job. But with Bush as president, we are so screwed!”

I knew almost immediately we were witnessing a life altering American moment which would be historically referred to as “before 9/11 and after 9/11.”

I became angry–outraged too, that these terrorists so brazenly attacked my city, New York City, one of the greatest cities in the world. I knew that New York City would rebuild, come back, as it always had done during its illustrious history. New Yorkers are resilient and much more generous than conventionally thought to be. It was in the hours and days after the 9/11 attacks, although I was angry, in shock, and at times, fearful, I absolutely fell in love with New Yorkers. My city and its first responders worked without self-regard, until they could do no more; lay their heads down to nap and then get up and do more.

However, I had no doubt that Bush would take America to war very quickly. I had early concerns about his apparent radical foreign policy agenda that marked a significant departure from previous administrations. My concerns would be borne out in ways that many Americans would find abhorrent. Some would call new Bush initiatives like warrantless wiretaps, fundamentally unconstitutional. It is a debate that continues into the present.

Classes were cancelled that day, but I could not get home until later in the evening. Sitting at my university computer, emails began rolling in from Sarajevo, written with great concern from dear friends, particularly. At this peculiar moment in my life, I felt a deep kinship with Sarajevans, who were so strong and loving, having survived a three-year siege of their city. Although America came late to their defense, they fell in love with America and Americans. Now, they were supporting New York City and America, evidenced in their urgent emails to me, and later in September more than 7,000 Sarajevans gathered together to sing Mozart’s Requiem Mass as a tribute to America and the lives that were lost on September 11th.

I staggered home later in the afternoon and watched television non-stop for the duration of the week until I could not bear another second. I learned about the 19 Saudi Arabian hijackers, who learned to fly planes in America, but not to land them, ultimately using them as suicide missiles.

CNN broadcast 24/7 and I watched video repeatedly of the planes flying into World Trade Center, as well as into the Pentagon. By the time the Friday night marathon tribute to the victims and country took place, I was more than ready to return to a reassuring episode of “Law and Order,” which envisaged the capture and arrest of the bad guys, who have been prosecuted and thrown into jail. It was a comforting thought in the midst of total chaos. But my thoughts were a fantasy, a wishful attempt to reclaim the idyllic and innocent America that once existed “before 9/11.”

The next morning, I headed to Harry’s Shoes at 83rd and Broadway to buy a new pair of shoes. Having made my purchase, I exited the store to my cell phone ringing.

On the line was a dear friend from Honolulu, Hawaii, who shared the terrible news that the husband of a mutual friend had been one of the passengers on United Flight 93–the hijacked plane that was successfully brought down in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, by its brave passengers, who thwarted another likely attack on the nation’s capitol or the White House in Washington, D.C.

I began to cry–the week’s terrible events finally had caught up with me. The bravery and sacrifice demonstrated by so many Americans–and some who were not–overwhelmed and touched me deeply. All these events, brought home and reinforced my notions that I consciously wanted to live life to its absolute fullest in the big and small moments, to be kind and show respect for others, to tell those who you love, that you indeed love and care about them everyday and live a mindful and conscious life that imbues gratitude and a zest for life.

Reflecting on all those who went to their deaths that fateful day–who had little, if any time to reflect. But we do, at least for today, which recalls Ralph Waldo  Emerson’s “Thanksgiving” poem, a sweet thought to consider as we reflect:

For each new morning with its light,
For rest and shelter of the night,
For health and food,
For love and friends,
For everything Thy goodness sends.

And may it be so for every day I live to see the morning dawn. After we leave this earth “only love will survive us” (Phillip Larkin).

Tanya L. Domi is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University who teaches about human rights in the former Yugoslavia and Eurasia and is a Harriman Institute affiliated faculty member. Prior to teaching at Columbia, Domi worked internationally for more than a decade on issues related to democratic transitional development, including political and media development, human rights, gender issues, sex trafficking, and media freedom.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Why I'm Supporting Hillary Clinton for President of the United States

Today Hillary Clinton announces her second run for president of the United States and there are personal and professional reasons why I am enthusiastically supporting Secretary Clinton's historical bid to lay claim to the most powerful office in not only America, but arguably in the world.

As a woman, one has to prepare and train to be a marathon runner in this life as we break ground into the second decade of the 21st century.  No one personifies the 'marathon runner' like Hillary Clinton who catapulted onto the world stage as a leading voice for women's rights in 1995 when she delivered a riveting speech at the UN Beijing Fourth Conference for Women, uttering the refrain that had been coined by international women's groups: "women rights are human rights and human rights are women's rights." Since that moment and even before, she has worked tirelessly to advance equal rights for women and girls, both here and abroad.  In America today, women face violence everyday by those closest to them and continue to face pervasive salary and wage discrimination, despite women superceding men in enrollment and attainment of all university degrees.  To elect Hillary Clinton the 45th president of the United States would advance these issues in unprecedented terms and no doubt would electrify the world.

This is the number one reason why I am supporting Hillary Clinton.

Hillary's personal story and her life and prodigious work ethic illustrated by her significant over achievement -- from making national news as a college graduation speaker to becoming the most qualified candidate for president in the modern era of American politics.  She has done it all -- graduated from some of the best universities in America; worked as a lawyer in Congress, pounded out more than 40 years of public policy work, became a First Lady who effectively participated in substantial public policy debates nationally and internationally; became the first First Lady to hold elective office as a U.S. Senator who forged a number of bi-partisan initiatives; became the first woman candidate for president who garnered 18 million votes during the primaries in 2008 and came close to defeating Barack Obama, the eventual winner.  Hillary demonstrated her classiness and higher calling as citizen, when she was asked by President Obama to serve as Secretary of State, which has not been done since William Seward served in Abraham Lincoln's administration  nearly 150 years ago after losing the election to Lincoln, having been considered the favored candidate prior to the convention.

The most recent example of how it usually plays out recalls Edward Kennedy's challenge to sitting President Jimmy Carter,  who, although he lost to Carter, refused to shake Carter's hand at the Democratic Convention.  Kennedy did very little to support Carter during the campaign, who went onto to lose to Ronald Reagan in 1980.

These instances of unselfishness rarely have occurred in American history -- to not only set aside your ego after a bruising defeat, but to rise above it all and serve your country and the president who defeated you reveals Clinton's solid character and humility.

Above all, she cares about people and issues -- people's lives and the public policies that can improve every American's life has animated her life's work, even when she could have chosen an easier path as a private citizen.  Nothing more exemplifies her sense of duty and commitment to the values of the Democratic Party as when she accompanied Barack Obama to Unity, New Hampshire on June 22, 2008 following her defeat and joined him in solidarity before voters.  She went on to appear for him more than 70 times, helping him make history as the first black man to serve in the highest office of the land.

Hillary's sense of duty, dedication and lack of selfishness is the second reason I am supporting her candidacy for the Democratic Party's nomination.  

On International Human Rights day, December 10, 2010, Hillary Clinton delivered the first speech by a sitting U.S. Secretary of State on behalf of LGBT human rights, articulating the U.S. government's policy addressing LGBT human rights.  It was a profound and insightful speech and as I listened spellbound, I noted the historical moment.  I did weep, as did many people I know, not only from America, but also from around the world.  

Hillary understood the speech's historical significance and chose to deliver this speech in Geneva, the home of the UN Human Rights Council on a deeply symbolic day, declaring a familiar refrain when she said:  "Being LGBT does not make you less human and that is why gay rights are human rights and human rights are gay rights..."  No doubt Hillary Clinton came to embrace LGBT human rights later in her political career, but when she steps up to the task, she has studied the issues and listened to wise advisors and acts, as she did so in Geneva on that special day.  

Hillary's comprehensive support of LGBT human rights is the third reason I am supporting her candidacy for the Democratic Party's nomination.

What strikes me as a consistent theme throughout Hillary's life is her intellectual curiosity and penchant to learn, study the issues, absorb the data and subsequently apply this new knowledge to public policy.  This became self evident when she was Secretary of State she articulated "that which is measured is what matters." Every USAID officer had to be prepared to brief Secretary Clinton on a country's data ranging from childhood and maternal morbidity, epidemiology of diseases, crop yields to educational attainment.  From a lifelong study of preschool education and childhood development policies, women's rights, healthcare, including the national Children's Health Insurance Program which was adopted by President Clinton, following Hillary's failed attempt to advance national health care for all Americans. The grass does not grow under Hillary Clinton's feet. She continues to learn.  Since leaving government, she has launched Clinton Foundation initiatives such as "Too Small to Fail," "The No Ceilings Full Participation Project," and one of my favorites is the Clinton Global Initiative commitment project to "Stop Poaching and Trafficking of Ivory," which she launched with daughter Chelsea that has established the connections between poaching of elephants and funding of terrorism in Africa.

Our country desperately needs continued leadership that calls on a wise and knowledgeable leader who embraces ideas, is not afraid of studying the data, particularly now in the face of the Republican party's embrace of full-on ignorance, the rejection of science and its gross disregard for verified facts through social science and scientific research.

Hillary's embrace of lifelong learning, her continued thirst for knowledge and how it can be applied to improve people's lives is the fourth reason why I support her candidacy for president of the United States.

On June 22, 2008 after Hillary appeared in Unity, New Hampshire with Barack Obama, holding their hands together in a joint march to victory in November 2008, she slipped away, flying back to New York City where she appeared before the first graduating class at the Eagle Academy, a charter high school  she helped establish for young black men in New York City.  The ceremony was held at Columbia University and she kept a promise made to a member of the class that she would speak at his graduation (I was present at the ceremony in my former communications role at Columbia).  The ceremony was quite emotional.  She discussed the day's events in Unity and told the life story of Barack Obama and the importance of electing him to the presidency before a majority black audience.  It was heart felt talk on a day of great importance to the families of the graduates.

After she concluded her remarks,  the school's leadership physically encircled her and with great praise and gratitude as the board chair presented a gift to her, he said:  "Hillary Clinton, God has plans for you and your work is not yet done."

On this day a new campaign is to be launched.  Hillary Clinton, the marathon runner, the principled moral leader on human rights, the life long learner has one more job to undertake.  She will take this campaign to the American people and listen to our fellow citizens and ask for their support and their votes.  She will fight for the average American, who only wants a decent quality of life by working in a good paying job with fair benefits;  who can raise a family and send their children to school without succumbing to numbing debt.  She has the strength of principle and compassion, coupled with the knowledge and wisdom to move our country forward to be able to meet the challenges of the 21st century.  

Tanya Domi is an adjunct professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, where she teaches human rights at the Harriman Institute.