How We’ve Changed

It’s been 20 years since the September 11th terrorist attacks changed everything. In this episode of Mosaic, we’ll hear from four different people about their experiences with 9/11.
September 11, 2021

Episode Host(s)

Ana, Host of Mosaic
Ana González

ANA: Hey everybody, this is Mosaic. I’m Ana González. If you’re listening to this when it airs, it’s the weekend of 9/11. 20 years ago, I was in third grade. I think my class was coming back from music or library, walking down the carpeted hallways of our elementary school. But then a teaching aid came out of the main office crying. And then the school psychologist and principal. Seeing adults cry scared me. I was silent when our teacher told us what was happening in New York and the Pentagon. I didn’t really get it. I was too young to understand the weight of the words “terrorist attack” and how they somehow affected me.

But 9/11 has affected all of us, every living being, in countless ways. In this episode of Mosaic, we’ll hear from four different people about their experiences with 9/11. The first is Sher Singh. He’s a network engineer who has spent decades working on government contracts, developing systems for the Navy. And he’s Sikh. The day after 9/11, Sher was on an Amtrak train from Boston to Virginia when the train stopped in Providence. SWAT team removed, arrested, and detained SinghI caught up with him 20 years later, to see how that day, September 12th, lives in his memory.

ANA: Sher, thank you so much for doing this. I really appreciate you taking the time. Thank you. My pleasure. I'm sure I'm not the first I know, I'm not the first one to ask you to do this. But can you explain where you were on September 11 2001?

SHER: I was in Massachusetts, I was working in Boston, my wife had finished her dental school and we had moved back to Virginia. I was still working some jobs there as a consultant with a company.

ANA: Were you with your wife that day? Or were you by yourself? I was by myself. And so did you like touch base with any other people from your family or your close circle of friends and talk about what it might mean for people like yourself who are Sikh, or at least like very optically non Christian people?

SHER: We did because they were concerned, obviously, I was not with them. Because when something like this happens, you want to be close to your family. Yeah, I was in Boston and home was back in the DC area. I think there was a talk just saying, “Okay, don't you have to travel right now.” But I think I'd already been in Boston for two weeks, and I wanted to come back home. And it was uncertain how things would happen. So I think it was like, I'm gonna take my chance.

ANA: Okay, and so now it's September 12 2001. And can you just explain like, what it was like to board the train? Did you think anything of it, did it feel different to be even like in public on that day?

SHER: Yeah. So you know, I left it pretty early in the morning when it was dark, took one of the commuter buses in Boston to the train station, it was like a quiet, silent all the way through there. Obviously people at the bus stop and people in the bus and then at the train station, people, I mean looking at each other, but not necessarily smiling, certainly not smiling at me, you sometimes you accept that as as a immigrant or as a person of color, or a different descent, that when when things are not certain people always going to look outward, okay? Somebody from my home, then do this. Somebody from outside did this and you look like an outsider. So natural phenomena. But okay, I was a traveler, like anyone else. I had my bags. I mean, I had a ticket and obviously had a plan. And I was determined to follow through.

ANA: How old were you at that time?

SHER: Good question. 30, I think.

ANA: So around 30, you've already lived like a fair chunk of life, hey, Had you ever felt that kind of outsider, like everybody may be looking at me thing before being an immigrant to the United States,

SHER: Certainly not as much as on that day. But six have a very distinct identity that the turban and a beard, you can have everything and you could be living out of the mountains where nobody knows you. But we don't believe in that. We strongly believe in our identity and the principles and we strongly believe in community and being a part of the fabric of the community.

ANA: So you get on the train, Boston, and then you make it a couple stops. And then I don't want to make you relive that day too much. But just in your words, what happened once you got to Providence?

SHER: So when the train, it seems to have stopped a couple of times before as well. It's seemed like it was like mechanical work or something. And then finally, when we were slowly pulling in, it seemed quite eerie, that I could almost sense that there's something wrong more than just more than just the train. There's no nobody knew there were no announcements coming on what's going on. And then when the train stopped, you know, they were people walking starting to come into train getting in and checking all sides coming towards me and walking past and looking. And then obviously then you know, officers and uniform came and then they do their weapon at me and asked me to step away, step out, walk with them. So obviously I was alarmed. Curious and maybe Okay, I understand there's the images you're seeing on the TV, and how you see me, so I gave them that chance. Okay, well, I'm not going to try to explain anything right now. And I picked up my bag or whatever I had and walked out walked in front of them sign on the platform a lot but I said okay, well, I don't think he's gonna shoot me so I'm gonna go

ANA: Yeah, did you know you have any idea that that they were serious about this that like

SHER: Anything, obviously they weren't smiling. So if I thought well, I understood the gravity of what had happened. When you know you and your own conscious are strong and and believe in either in the system and believe in, in your own practice and on your own your own belief and I knew I could get over this. I knew I could explain it. Obviously took a little bit longer and and it gave me maybe a lifelong desire to push myself even more than I used to, to be an outreach kind of a person. Because it really struck me somewhere that this, my identity has to stand for itself. So I've got to really make an effort and in everything that I do in life, to stand on a position and make a point, be strong at it. So,

ANA: Okay, so it's been 20 years since that day when you were detained. If you were to describe that change over 20 years, that's a long time in yourself that change, like how would you the trajectory of that change and having to reach out more? How has that arc gone for you?

SHER: Certainly the first year or a couple of years were, I would say, advocacy and standing out. And then as time went on, what I felt was a good amount of awareness had started to happen. And I was already on that path of being an immigrant. And now after 10 years, or so being in America had settled and educated I was doing well in life. I can support others, I can support other immigrants, I can support other people of color I can, it gotten a lot interviews like this, or or it got to a point where I felt that I want to focus on having this kind of things, not repeat again, I got to work, we got to work in all angles. And I felt I was very strong at working with children from the Sikh community, from the Indian American community to interact and integrate and be involved in interfaith activities and be involved in community services so that we can, as a nation become stronger as a nation heal, and not let this happen to anyone.

ANA: And so what type of what type of grassroots work were you doing? Alright, and are you still doing

SHER: Started with the teaching are in the Indian American and the Sikh community started teaching children and started organizing camps, summer camps, we have our own Institute, we have our foundation, where we are helping do things for the environment, we did a lot of COVID outreach to all over the world with supplies and things like that. And then obviously, our core was teaching the children in our institute, the the adults in our institute, the languages, the sick culture, obviously, the musical tradition, and whatever in local activities of helping food banks and things. So it's been a very, very busy time.

ANA: Yeah, you're one busy, busy, busy person. And so that makes me extremely grateful that you made the time to talk to me today. And also, I want to know, too, how do you talk to your children about this, about this event that happened? And and then the, the, the purpose that you have right now, like what kind of conversations do you have with them, and like the legacy that you hope that that that this lesson taught you?

SHER: I tried to be very open. So I have a six year old and 12 year old going to be 13. Meanwhile, he didn't have any kids of her own when when the school started. So we're all like, we were in there. And community First, lets you know, our home, our everything else will, everything will fall in place, and everything has always fallen in place. And if you're on the right path, the right things will come to you at the right time. So so my my niece was the first one at one of the youth one summer camps when she saw a video or a movie, which had my piece and it came running out to me and I had not spoken her, told her about it. So obviously she and she was very emotional. But then I realized when a couple two, three years ago, I told my oldest son what had happened. So he said, he understand that he's very, because he knows the things we're involved in, and he knows probably why we do so many things. I don't have to you know, I didn't have to tell him why we're doing this. So that, you know, we we are more accepted, said why we're doing this because the community needs this we need we need to help people around us, people around us will see who we are people around us need help, you know, the refugees have have just come from Afghanistan. And Virginia is a big center for them here. So we're trying to see many things we can do for them. And it's a very, it's a very planned approach things that we were doing with COVID it was helping local communities cooking meals and so even my son got involved in it. And obviously our whole family has always been totally believing in serving humanity serving the community, because the three core principles of Sikhism are critical namjoo huanchaco and curse girl so always serve first, share first and then take it for yourself. And then Always remember, the the creator In your actions, whatever you're doing, wherever you are, so that will give you an inner code that you are right, you're doing something that will have a pillar of strength behind you, and not make you do the right things. And do honest work critical. Don't Don't try to take away somebody else's hard work and earnings, make it make your own. Go beyond the stars. There's nothing stopping you from living your life like a king.

ANA: I think that's a great place to leave it. I do want to ask too, do you? Do you ever get angry about what happened to you on that train? 20 years ago?

SHER: No, I don't, I don't, I don't think about it. And I don't, it doesn't bother me. It's one of the things in life. And there, you know, we highlight something a lot. And there are many other good things, many other things that we experience in life, which are much more valuable. Whatever I can make a positive change, whatever thought can improve life for me and life for people around me and others, that's what I'll think about, and that's where I want to focus on.

ANA: Well, Sher, thank you so much for sharing your time with me and I hope you have a great rest of your day.

SHER: Yeah, I got to get back to work. So this was changed. Oh, my mind is refreshed.

ANA: Yeah, you really centered yourself. I can see it. Well, yeah, have a great rest of your day. Thank you so much. I'm going to stop recording it out. But thank you so much.


ANA: That was my conversation with Sher Singh, an Indian-American network engineer living in Virginia. You’re listening to Mosaic. Next, Andrea Mazzarino is a co-founder of the Costs of War Project, an research initiative from Brown University that facilitates debate about the costs of the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the related violence in Pakistan and Syria. She submitted this personal essay to us.

MAZZARINO: Twenty years. 929,000 killed. Eight trillion dollars. That’s a conservative estimate of the costs of America’s forever war on terror. When Brown University’s Costs of War Project, which I helped found 10 years ago, released these figures earlier this month, I was standing in my Maryland kitchen with my husband, a Naval officer. He has not fought in combat zones, but he has weathered the costs of these wars through the relentless pace of trainings and deployments, war traumatized and abusive commanding officers, and more recently, an increasingly autocratic and sick homeland deprived of the resources it needs to heal. I said to my spouse that night, “I wish I hadn’t left”- referring to the management job at Costs of War, which I’d quit to pursue a career as a therapist counseling veterans and other war-affected populations. Now I felt out of the loop, like I needed to take a more active role in what had become a powerful advocacy project.

My husband turned to me and said, “I bet lots of vets are saying they wish they could go back, too,” referring to our hasty Afghanistan pullout. I thought about the network of US veterans sitting in the blue light of their computer screens and on their cell phones, using intelligence tips to help guide their Afghan counterparts – interpreters, fixers, fellow soldiers - to safety. I also thought, somewhat incongruently, about the June evening in 2011 when Costs of War co-founder Catherine Lutz and I stood with Brown University public relations staff behind a computer screen as we launched the project’s first report. After so many months staring at images of bombed out buildings, bloodied Iraqi children, Afghan refugees living in squalor, soldiers with severed limbs and distant looks in their eyes, we felt desperate for the country to start paying closer attention. In an argument I’d had with my husband leading up to that night, about the respective merits of fighting war versus documenting its costs, he had said, in an attempt at a jab – “But it’s just a website.” We at Costs of War of course had something bigger in mind.

In the years since that initial launch of the project, as our counter-terrorism operations grew to span dozens of countries around the world, and as my spouse and I learned to accept the contradictions in our military and activist careers, he and I have managed to agree on one thing: what matters less than what your role is that you are paying attention to the broader impacts of armed conflict. After all, it is we, the broader voting public, who choose the leaders who wage battles or not. Yet only some parties to the conflict, like soldiers, veterans, their families, and more than anyone perhaps, civilians in the war zones, have no choice but to experience what war does.

What I hope Americans remember is this: on the ground in Afghanistan or not, America’s war on terror goes on. As Yale history professor Samuel Moyn noted in his recent New York Times op-ed, this war has both expanded around the globe and grown more difficult to see.

As Moyn argued, these discourses of precise and humane war made it more likely that we would accept war’s indefinite continuation. He writes, “it is easier not to mistreat prisoners if you no longer capture them.”

We are killing them instead. Civilians included. Only this time, we don’t even need to look them in the eye. (Though skyrocketing suicide rates among U.S. troops, most severely amongst those who have never deployed to a war zone or deployed only once, suggest that seeing the enemy may not matter so much – that there could be a cost in blood to engaging in war from afar.)

My best way to stay connected to the costs of this war is to ensure as many people as possible do not see war simplistically as just an honorable pursuit, that they do not think only of flag draped coffins and tearful reunions amongst returning soldiers and their families; that they don’t just thank soldiers for their service and so distance themselves from their daily experiences.

Nor should we cover our kids’ eyes and ears when the topic of armed violence arises. We Americans need to remind ourselves that regardless of political persuasion or distance separating us from the war zones, the families and communities of some million people already killed by our 21st century wars have no choice but to bear witness. We should join them.


ANA: That was Andrea Mazzarino, co-founder of The Costs of War project. And now, Meg O’Neill is an author living in Newport who submitted an essay to us reflecting on the words “I’m ok.”

O’NEILL: I moved to New York City in 1999 to chase my dream of becoming a writer. I was 28 and broke and in love with the paradox of New York's grit and polish and its chronic opportunities to reinvent yourself. I probably would have been leaving my apartment in Brooklyn – late as usual – for the coffee shop and my F train commute when the first tower was hit at 8:46 a.m. on September 11, 2001.

Instead, I was woken up at 5 a.m. I was on vacation, and visiting my best friend on Maui. Her husband had gotten a call from his brother in California with the news a little earlier. He said he waited to wake me so that I could sleep a little longer, but I suspect that really he needed some time to figure out how to tell me that New York was on fire.

It was already 11 a.m. on the east coast, and by then it was clear that this was a terrorist attack. I was desperate for information. My first call was to my parents, who were traveling that day. They were safe, but grounded at an airport in California.

I spent the next several hours dialing and redialing my closest friends and co-workers. Cell phone service in New York had instantly become almost non-existent, and getting through to anybody was virtually impossible. That didn't stop me from trying, trying, and trying again. I was intent to ensure they were alive and safe. Some had already changed their voicemail messages with the most precious words you could hear that day: “I'm okay.”

I raced to the library as soon as it opened for a faster internet connection. I read the news and sent emails till my fingers were too tired to type. As I worked furiously to track down the people I loved, my mind and body were fraught with such tension that it felt like every muscle, tendon, and nerve would snap. Hearing or reading “I'm ok,” provided a rush of relief – the kind where you suddenly realize you'd been holding your breath for way too long. Of course, none of us was really “ok,” but in the moment, it was enough.

Through a network of friends and family, I managed to account for everyone I cared for, except for one girlfriend whom no one had heard from. Was there anything I could have done if I was back in Brooklyn? Probably not. Still, I felt helpless and useless being so far away. To take my mind off things, I eventually went surfing. It was the best way I could find to fend of the despair.

I learned the next day that my friend was alright. Like so many others, she'd made it out of Manhattan by crossing a bridge on foot.

As for me, it was a week before I was able to get on a plane to go back home. There are worse places to be stuck than Maui, I know, but all I wanted to do was get back to New York. I didn't know what I could do or how I could help – or even if it was safe to return – but I needed to lay eyes on the city myself.

After that, New York itself was transformed. Not just physically, but psychologically, too. Bomb scares would shut down subway lines regularly. Soldiers stood on street corners with automatic rifles slung over their shoulders. War felt imminent and politics got scarier. Moving through the city felt dangerous. It was stressful. I broke out in a rash.

It's remarkable that no one I knew died that day, but that doesn't mean I'm not still grieving. Twenty years later, I still observe Sept 11 as a very solemn day, and often find myself surprised when people carry on with life as usual on its anniversary. I carry on, too, because, well, I'm ok. I just know now that those two simple words can express a magnitude of different things, depending on the day.


ANA: That was an essay by writer and Newport resident, Meg O’Neill. Now, our final perspective on the impact of 9/11 comes from Padma Venkatraman, an Indian-american writer living in South County, Rhode Island.

VENKATRAMAN: Go back. You don’t belong here.

It was the message many of us with dark skin heard on January 6th as we watched a mob storm our Capitol. It was the message broadcast across the world by all who actively or tacitly supported an illegal attempt to dismantle the foundation of our democracy.

In a less dramatic fashion, my fellow citizens who may proudly self-identify as belonging to a marginalized community, are still being told our voices – and our votes – shouldn’t count.

The enactment of voter-suppression laws is as terrifying to me as the insurrection, because this defilement of our democracy is occurring with legal sanction; because this erosion of voting rights is being conducted in a manner that will be protected by the law. And it’s deeply unsettling and upsetting to me because my right to vote in the United States is hard-won. It is not a right I was born with.

In 2008, I stood in line to elect an American president for the first time. I felt as if it was a dream, to finally be accepted as a citizen and to be granted this right, this honor, to choose the person whom I thought would serve our nation best

My reverie was interrupted by a white woman who was working the polls. She got out of her seat, walked all the way to where I was standing, and demanded to see proof that I was an American citizen. I showed her a copy of my citizenship certificate, which I’d brought along with me, and then took my place at the end of the line again. I watched, as everyone ahead of me was allowed to vote without being pulled out of the waiting line and asked to prove they were American, as I had been.

After I finished voting, I reported the incident to the head of the polling station. She, like the person who had pulled me out of line, and everyone else in the line ahead of me, was white. Her eyes filled with tears when I told her what had happened, and she apologized over and over again. “I can’t believe it,” she said.

Unfortunately, I could.

I left India, where I was born, at the age of nineteen, to move overseas on my own, miles away from everyone I’d ever known or loved. Since then, as I strove all alone to prove my worth, I’ve experienced steadfast and supportive friendships, immense love and complete acceptance; I’ve been embraced enough by this society that I chose on my own to become a United States citizen. I’ve also had my American-ness challenged. Repeatedly.

Post 9/11, I was subjected to so-called “random” security screenings – on every one of eleven flights I took within the country. After the pandemic, I’ve been yelled at and told to take the virus home with me by those who refuse to accept that this country is just as much my home as theirs.

I’ve never been one of those immigrants who speaks of the United States in superlatives, and

There are some who consider me ungrateful for daring to imply that the United States may be imperfect.

So why, if I think this nation has weaknesses, did I become a citizen? I became a citizen because my love of our nation is deep and true.

For me, it’s love of a concept of the United States that includes a commitment to freedom and justice for all; along with an acceptance that we fall short, sometimes severely.

As a mother, I repeat to my child what my mother would say to me in India, when I was growing up. I don’t criticize strangers because I don’t truly care about them.

Accepting our current limitations and acknowledging historical atrocities is an expression of our dedication to our nation.

To those who take our democracy for granted, refuse to admit they might have privilege, or choose to stay silent when our nation’s freedom is attacked from outside or steadily eroded from within, to those who seek personal gratification and power above all else, I suggest it’s my American-ness that spurs me to educate others that while I’ve encountered my fair share of hatred, my Black and Latinx and indigenous family and friends, have experienced far worse.

As long as I wasn’t a citizen, I didn’t raise my voice in criticism, because in the Indian culture of my heritage, guests aren’t supposed to speak ill of hosts. But I’m no longer a guest. The United States is home. Acknowledging weakness is key to nurturing strength.


ANA: And that’s all for today. Learn more about our community essayists or The Costs of War project, visit our website, mosaicpodcast.org.

Mosaic is a production of the Public’s Radio. Edited by Sally Eisele. Produced by James Baumgartner and Pearl Marvell. Website support from Jeff Matteis. Our original music is by Bryn Bliska. Torey Malatia is the General Manager of The Public’s Radio. I’m Ana Gonzálex. Thank you for listening.

Support for this program comes from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, supporting innovations in democratic engagement and the advancement of international peace and security at carnegie.org.


Sher today via Zoom from his Virginia home


“Sometimes you accept that as an immigrant or as a person of color, or a different descent, that when things are not certain people are always going to look outward, okay? ‘Somebody from my home didn’t do this. Somebody from outside did this ,and you look like an outsider.'”

“We strongly believe in our identity and the principles and we strongly believe in community and being a part of the fabric of the community.”

“And I picked up my bag or whatever I had and walked out walked in front of them sign on the platform, my heart pounding a lot, but I said ‘Okay, well, I don’t think he’s gonna shoot me so I’m gonna go.'”

“I felt I was very strong at working with children from the Sikh community, from the Indian American community to interact and integrate and be involved in interfaith activities and be involved in community services so that we can, as a nation become stronger as a nation heal, and not let this happen to anyone.”

“We need to help people around us, people around us will see who we are. People around us need help.”

andrea mazzarino

“What matters less than what your role is that you are paying attention to the broader impacts of armed conflict.”


“Of course, none of us was really ‘ok,’ but in the moment, it was enough.”

“Twenty years later, I still observe Sept 11 as a very solemn day, and often find myself surprised when people carry on with life as usual on its anniversary.”


“Post 9/11, I was subjected to so-called ‘random’ security screenings – on every one of eleven flights I took within the country.”

“For me, it’s love of a concept of the United States that includes a commitment to freedom and justice for all; along with an acceptance that we fall short, sometimes severely.”

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