Once the towers had fallen, simultaneously facing both the body count and the scarred city skyline was enough to realign anybody's perspectives. I was supposedly on track as a college sophomore in Virginia, but it was tough for me to justify continuing on as a student; every day for months, I thought about dropping out to enlist, feeling like a draft dodger even though there was no draft. We waited for twelve hours in a line that stretched around the basketball arena to donate at the Red Cross blood drive, and when our turns finally came, it felt like we couldn't give enough. As a teenager, I was of course unprepared for the kind of trauma that can level a nation. It was a totally new kind of distress, like I was consumed by a grief that was just too big for my body to hold. This, I think, is patriotism.
But patriotism can be a funny thing, especially in the South, where it often threatens to devolve into something much more nefarious. Local goons started throwing sandwiches at my little brother as he walked to school; we're Indian, not Arab. Out in Arizona, a gas station owner named Balbir Singh Sodhi was murdered for wearing a turban; he was Sikh, not Muslim. The ignorance was as alarming as the hysteria.