Monday was the sixteenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks that took place on September 11th, 2001. I was sixteen years old at the time. I was sitting in 11th grade English class when I first heard about the attacks. The school had sent out a memo about it that was laying in front of my teacher, Ms. Madigan, on the table where we were gathered for our English lesson. There would be no English lesson that morning though.
I glanced over at the memo and saw something about a plane crash around the World Trade Center. “A plane crashed into the World Trade Center? ” I asked Ms. Madigan. She hesitated for a moment, took a deep breath and said “Yes, two planes have crashed in to the World Trade Center and another has crashed in to the Pentagon.”
“How did they manage to do that?” I replied, thinking it had been an accident. It took me a minute to realize that this was no accident. This was a deliberate terrorist attack.
I was grateful that my mother no longer worked in New York City, as she had for several years, so I did not have to fear for her safety. But of course the attacks left me feeling shaken and fearful, as they did everyone in America.
Towards the end of the school day I sat surrounded by my peers in a therapy group led by Delilah, a school social worker. “Is this attack a big deal?” a boy named Evan asked. “Of course it’s a big deal!” Jacob snapped. “I wasn’t asking you, jackass!” Evan snapped back.
“They’re making a big deal about this because white people were killed by Arabic people but no one makes a big deal when Arabic people are killed by white people”, Layla, an Arabic girl pointed out.
It wasn’t until I got home and turned on the television that I comprehended the true horror of the situation. It was then that I saw visual representations of the destruction, the violence and the carnage that had occurred. I saw the planes crashing in to the towers, the towers toppling over, the flames, the smoke, the terrified onlookers and survivors, the indistinct forms of those who had not survived, who had chosen death by jumping over death by fire. While most of the images that remain in my memory of September 11th are disturbing images that horrify me, there is one image I find quite poignant. It shows a group of firefighters holding up an American flag amidst the rubble of the World Trade Center.
I knew from history books that the Pearl Harbor attacks made December 7th a day that would live in infamy. Now I knew from my own first hand experience that September 11th would be a day that lived in infamy.
Things would never be quite the same after September 11th, 2001. We were all forced to adjust to a new normal. Air travel became much more complicated and fraught with worries. Last year I had to fly on September 11th and it made me nervous even though I don’t really believe in superstitions and I knew that ever since September 11th, 2001 I’d probably been safer on flights due to increased security protocol. I have been subject to multiple post 9/11 airport pat downs (and I’m a white woman with a baby face.)
Thousands of people lost their lives on 9/11 but I know they’re not the only ones who died as a result of that fateful day and I know that the people who lost their lives as a result of it are not the only victims. A few weeks after the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush announced the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, a war that continues to this day. Countless people have lost their lives as a result of that war. I cannot pretend that they all deserved to die or that they were all guilty by association. Although I’ll never hear about those people on the news or read their names on memorial plaques, I cannot pretend that their deaths are any less of a tragedy than the ones that occurred on 9/11.
I also cannot pretend that I’ve never had prejudiced feelings towards Muslims or felt uncomfortable around them in the post 9/11 world. But then I remind myself that they don’t have to apologize for the atrocities that were committed in the name of radical Islam any more than I have to apologize for all the atrocities that have been committed in the name of Christianity. I remind myself that with all the prejudice and discrimination they’ve faced after 9/11, they’ve suffered as a result of it far more than I have.
In May 2011, Osama Bin Laden, the mastermind behind 9/11, was killed. I try not to rejoice in anyone’s death but I wasn’t sad to see him go. On September 11, 2011 the 9/11 memorial museum opened in New York City. In December of that year I saw the movie Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which was based on a novel about a boy whose father died in the 9/11 attacks. It was the second movie I’d seen about 9/11. I’d chosen not to watch the movies about 9/11 conspiracy theories but In 2006 I saw the movie United 93 about the plane that crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania on 9/11 after the passengers overpowered the terrorist hijackers. I cried, as did the people sitting next to me in the theater. The tears flowed again in 2016 when Bretagne, the last surviving 9/11 search and rescue dog was given a hero’s salute by a group of firefighters as she was walked in to the veterinarian’s office to be euthanized and when her body departed the animal hospital draped in an American flag.
‘Never forget’ is a slogan often associated with 9/11. On September 11th, 2001 Facebook did not exist but now that it does, on every 9/11 anniversary, it’s filled with tributes to and remembrances of the day. This year was no exception. Some of the tributes were quite poignant and touching, others were frankly quite tacky and tasteless. Tributes or not, I’ll never forget 9/11 and I doubt anyone else will either.
In November 2016 I sat in a booth at a pancake house across from my friend Vanessa from high school. She had been in English class with me on 9/11/01. Sitting beside me were Ms. Madigan and Delilah. Vanessa told us how disgusted she was by the results of the recent election, a sentiment we all shared. The conversation then turned to our classmate, Layla. In the wake of the election Layla had had to change her name on Facebook because she was being threatened and harassed due to her Arabic name.
The election of a president whose campaign was based on hateful rhetoric towards Muslims ( and various other minority groups) had emboldened racists and xenophobes to act out, to turn their hateful thoughts in to hateful actions. Trump often used references and allusions to 9/11 to argue that Muslims were a danger to our country and that they needed to be done away with. He also told a lot of lies and made a lot of tasteless comments about the tragedy because that’s just the kind of person he is.
Tragedies like 9/11 are by their very nature devastating events that cause tremendous suffering. Yet there is always potential for some good to come out of tragedy. It can inspire unity, compassion, awareness, activism, strength, determination, a desire to help others. We certainly saw some of that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and we certainly continue to see some of that today as a direct or indirect effect of the attacks that occurred on that fateful day.
Yet I fear that these days we are moving further towards being poisoned by the kind of hatred and disregard for human life that was in the hearts and minds of those terrorists that attacked us on 9/11/2001, that we are emulating it rather than opposing it. It’s in the call for a travel ban on Muslim countries, a Muslim registry, a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. It’s in the decision to uproot the children of immigrants from the only home they’ve ever known, to ban transgender people from serving in the military, to cut healthcare and education funding from the poor, the sick and the vulnerable. It’s in the countless shootings and beatings that have occurred, the countless people who have been discriminated against, attacked or murdered for their religion, their sexuality or the color of their skin.
It’s in the horrific demonstration that occurred in Charlottsville last month in which white supremacists marched through the streets exposing their faces to the world, carrying guns, torches and Nazi flags, spewing insults and threats at minority groups, committing violence in the name of racism and antisemitism until one of those protesters plowed his car through a crowd of counter protesters, injuring 19 and killing 1. All of this was followed by a president who for days refused to denounce the white supremacists and who never labeled them as the terrorists that they are.
I saw a tweet that read “The 9/11 attacks were a horrific event in US history, but the election of Donald Trump will be seen as equally disastrous, if not more so.” Some people were offended by that tweet, claiming it made an insensitive and inaccurate comparison.
To those people I say, tragedies that occur on one specific day and result in the immediate physical death of thousands of people are not the only kind of tragedy. Terrorist attacks that involve deliberately crashing airplanes into office buildings are not the only kind of terrorist attacks. Terrorists who have brown skin and are from middle eastern countries are not the only kind of terrorists.
America faces threats not just from other countries but from within itself, from those U.S. citizens who feel they have license to terrorize their fellow Americans for not being white, for not being Christian, for not being heterosexual, for not being gender conforming, for not having a penis, for not being healthy, for not having been born into privilege.
One of the reasons we must never forget our painful past is so that we don’t repeat its mistakes. Our painful past didn’t start or end with 9/11 and while the attacks can hardly be considered a mistake on our part, some of our responses to it have been. While humans as a species are characterized by their ability to learn from the past, they are also unfortunately characterized by their refusal to do so.
I felt a certain kind of shock and terror on 9/11/01 and I also felt a certain kind of shock and terror on 11/9/16. While no airplanes had been hijacked by terrorists on 11/9/16, it felt as though our country had been hijacked by a monster who would institute a reign of terror. While on 11/9/16 I would not watch buildings fall or go up in flames over the course of an hour as a result of severe structural damage sustained from terrorist attacks, I could envision a future in which over the course of four years I would watch the pillars of American society crumble and fall as a result of severe damage sustained to the foundations our democracy was built on by repeated attacks from within. I could envision a future in which I would watch all the progress and advancements that had been achieved within the last forty years in terms of civil rights and equality go up in flames within four years.
On 11/9/16 I did not see people choose to jump out of a burning building rather than remain inside but I heard the voices of people who were considering moving out of this country rather than remaining here. On 11/9/16 thousands of Americans did not die as a result of a terrorist attack nor were they grievously physically injured but millions were grievously injured spiritually and emotionally. They saw the deaths of their hopes, their, dreams, their sense of safety and security, of their trust, faith and belief in the American people and the American system.
The 9/11 attacks were perpetrated by outsiders that made it clear that they were our enemies, that they wanted to harm us, that they hated everything we stood for. This prolonged attack on our nation, the reality of which began to set in on 11/9/16, is being carried out by a man from within our country who claims to be our friend and ally, who claims that he will help us, that he has our best interests at heart, that he represents our values, a man who we have elected as our leader. The incidents that occurred on 9/11 were surprise attacks that none of us anticipated and none of us consented to. Millions of our own citizens consented to and brought about the 11/9 attack that is still currently being waged on our country and will continue to be waged on our country for years to come.
Along with ‘never forget’, there are two other ‘never’ slogans that come to mind-‘never give up’ and ‘never give in’. They apply to the attitude we must take towards the Trump administration, as does a certain one word slogan- ‘Resist’. Resist the Trump administration just like those passengers on the United 93 flight who managed to divert the plane from its intended target resisted the terrorist hijackers. Resist,resist, resist. Never forget 9/11 and never forget 11/9. Never give in to the kind of hatred and evil that brought about the events that occurred on those dates and never give up on fighting for what’s right in the face of the hardships 9/11 and 11/9 have brought to us all.