How our environment shapes our perceptions

Last month, we mourned the 11th anniversary of 9-11.

I can’t believe it’s been that long.

And, this year, living in Moldova, I came to a surprising realization.  Some Moldovans do not believe that 9-11 was really a terrorist attack.  Some Moldovans are suspicious about what happened; they believe it’s very feasible—or, in some cases undeniable—that the U.S. government was behind it.

I am not trying to start a conspiracy theory debate, or to make anyone appear ignorant.  My wish is not to anger any readers, or for anyone to create stereotypes based on this lone piece of information.  Nor I am defending our government, because our government’s actions have certainly not always been above reproach.

I say this in an effort to paint picture about environment and perceptions.  And how our environment plays such a leading role in shaping our perceptions of the world.

I remember that day, that morning, September 11.  I had just started my freshman year of high school.  I was getting ready to leave when my mom came upstairs and said there was something I needed to see.  She brought me down to our kitchen television where the news was playing and said that they thought there had been a bomb in one of the World Trade Center towers, and she wanted to show me because people would be talking about it that day.  Quite literally, as she’s saying this, she stops, eyes glued to the screen and says something like, “Oh my gosh.”  We had just watched the second plane crash into tower two.

I looked at my mom.  I didn’t understand.  What did this mean?  She said, “I think this is a terrorist attack.”

It was a half day at our school.  Everyone was talking about the events of that morning.  We even turned on radios and televisions and just followed the news.  And when the day ended, we went straight home and sat, in horror, in front of our televisions watching the news coverage.  Shocked pedestrians in the streets.  First responders.  People jumping.  The towers collapsing.  It was, in a word, awful.

So, to be honest, as an American, when I heard this viewpoint from some Moldovans, it was a hard thing to digest.  I think so many Americans remember that day so vividly, and with great sadness.  And I think my mind cannot even compute the possibility that our own government was a driving force in that.  Not because it’s not possible, but because we watched that day as so many lives were needlessly taken.  Another thing my mind just almost can’t compute.

And I wanted to share this, because I want Moldovans to know that story, to know that side.  To hear, from our hearts, what that day was to us, as individual human beings.

But I also want to remember, as an American, that 9-11 was not the only atrocity of the past decade, or several, or more.  Things are happening around the world that we should take seriously and remember to have sympathy for.  After all, what makes those any different from 9-11?  Geography?  Man-made borders?  Let us not run out of sympathy for people and families around the world who have been the victims of needless violence or oppression.  Let us have open ears and open hearts hear their stories, despite our perceptions.

Peter Singer, a modern philosopher, wrote an essay entitled “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” that you can read in the book World Hunger and Moral Obligation.  In that essay, he makes a profound point, one that I liked:

“The fact that a person is physically near to us, so that we have personal contact with him, may make it more likely that we shall assist him, but this does not show that we ought to help him rather than another who happens to be further away.  If we accept any principle of impartiality, universalizability, equality, or whatever, we cannot discriminate against someone merely because he is far away from us (or we are far away from him).”

Awhile ago, I visited the Newseum in Washington, D.C.  There, they have an exhibit with the front pages of countless newspapers from September 12, 2001.  That is what the picture below is from.



One response to “How our environment shapes our perceptions

  1. I remember talking to my host mom in Stauceni about 9/11 – and granted my Romanian was infantile at that point – but I had a really hard time even getting her to understand the event I was referring to. She didn’t recognize the words “9/11″ or ‘New York” or World Trade Center” or “terrorist attack.” Finally, I think it was my mimed imitation of a plane flying into a building that she responded to with “Ahhh. Catastrophe…American catastrophe.” She nodded her head sagely. “Prea multe catastrophe din lume.”
    That was when it hit me that to other people in the world, the tumultuous and inexplicable horror of 9/11 was just one of many, many tragedies that occur all too often for the majority of people around the world. We like to think we are special – or we just naturally assume that attitude because we don’t routinely experience “catastrophes.” But our sorrow is no greater or less, all of our blood runs the same. Catastrophes may not have become common place to us in America (and I hope they never do) but for so many others, they are just an inevitable part of life.

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