This year is the fifteenth anniversary of 9-11 and most of my grown up life has happened in the shadow of that event. On that day, America changed and we are just now really seeing those changes come home to roost.
I remember hearing about the first plane hitting the tower on the radio as I was driving to set up a charity event that morning. We weren’t sure what had really happened, if it was just some random tragedy or what. Then we arrived to the venue and began setting up as usual. We were isolated in that bubble, going about our normal activities. No one else came past the time we were expecting to see the event organizers, so we called the office and learned about the second plane and all of those implications. We had to wait another hour before the event organizers finally called off the event. It was an odd sort of limbo, where we knew there was something momentous happening in the world, but were cut off from it. We then struck our equipment and headed back to the office.
My boss set up a TV and we were glued to that TV for the rest of the day. I remember those initial images, before the more graphic ones were censored. I remember seeing bodies falling, I remember watching the planes crash into the towers over and over again. I remember the Pentagon and the other plane taken over and crashed by its passengers. I remember that day with the same emotional force as the day my grandmother died. It is seared in my memory, branded on my soul.
Immediately afterward I felt the need for revenge and a fierce patriotism. How dared anyone attack us. I fully supported bombing Afghanistan to smithereens. I didn’t care who got killed, no one could attack us like that and get away with it. They had poked the sleeping dragon and could very well deal with the consequences. Our entire country went a little crazy in the wake of 9-11 and I was no different.
I came to earth rather quickly when evidence of that craziness manifested itself here at home. When the USA Patriot Act passed and someone finally read the contents; when a list of songs banned from the radio came out because they were old war protest songs or mentioned New York and that would be too much for our delicate sensibilities; when the war expanded to Iraq for no clear reason; the political establishment was using the tragedy to consolidate power.
In the immediate wake of the attack, our entire country came together as one. It didn’t matter what your racial or ethnic background, what your normal politics, we all felt attacked and there was an incredible amount of support within communities. Later, that began to disintegrate and it seems like our collective anger, once denied its proper outlet, turned inward.
It is only after this time that the racial tensions began to escalate to the point where today we have a presidential candidate who can say horrible things about entire groups of people and not only get away with it, actually gain popularity because of it. Yes, before 9-11 we had OJ Simpson and Rodney King and some places scattered throughout where the police forces were notorious. However, and perhaps I was living in a bubble, but I didn’t see the deep, widespread racial hatred that manifests itself today. That was something we read about in school and deplored.
I knew that there was prejudice and I knew that there was work to be done to reach equality. I don’t want to discount those struggles in any way. My husband experienced direct and blatant racism growing up in a small rural town. For example, he was told by his high school counselor that his career options were the frozen food factory or the military. Understand, he was an All American athlete and an A student and this person had no cognitive disconnect saying that. This kind of thing happened often where he had to prove himself again and again in excess of what other kids had to do in order to gain the same respect. So I am not saying that prejudice and racism didn’t exist, I know that it did.
What I am trying to express is that those thoughts, words, and actions were not socially acceptable in the larger society. Speaking about fantasies of violence against any minority group, let alone any such actions, were almost universally deplored and were seen as the lunatic fringe. Since 9-11 it has become OK to talk about hurting, kicking out, taking wholesale actions against entire groups of people. I am a student of history and am very much reminded of the times our country has turned ugly. I am reminded of the Japanese interment camps, of the Trail of Tears, and even of “No Irish Need Apply.”
I am frightened that we are sliding into another dark time in our country, one where horrible things will be done in the name of patriotism. We have allowed so many freedoms to be stripped away and so many privacy violations in the name of security. How far is too far? At what point will our republic eat itself alive and devolve into an authoritarian regime? It may not be as far off as one hopes.
I saw a meme today with a picture of the Twin Towers and the caption, “Never Forget. Never Forgive.” I was deeply saddened by that caption, and more than a little frightened. If we never forgive, we can never recover, we can never thrive. If we never forgive we will perpetually be seeking revenge and perpetually be fueling the hatred that spawns acts of violence. Our great country, and I do truly believe it is a wonderful and great country despite my concerns, could very easily follow the path of other nations that have chosen hatred and fear and have suffered immensely because of that choice. I am specifically thinking of France, but also of Israel among others.
I am generally an optimistic person and I have great hope that we as a country will rise to respond in healing ways to the challenges of our time. I am hoping that because the challenges are great, we will be able to come together to meet those challenges and to move toward healing rather than division. It is a major reason I have become motivated to create this space in a little corner of the internet. I am hoping to become a part of the solution, to promote understanding of the other, so that our differences don’t overshadow our shared humanity. It has been fifteen years since a few fanatics changed the course of history on a sunny fall morning. I hope, as we move farther from that fateful day and face decisions that will define who we are, that we can choose to see the humanity and the struggles of those whose culture is different from our own rather than just the otherness.
911 Tribute in Light Photo by Chris Schiffner (@ChrisSchiffner) http://www.schiffner.com