I was 11 years old on Sept. 11, 2001. I remember, as a child growing up in Davis, watching the incomprehensible scene of planes and fire and falling towers with widening eyes before elementary school. I remember how my best friend’s little brother awoke to the noise asking, “What movie are you watching?” My sixth-grade class spent the whole day watching the news and I’d never seen the adults in my life so shaky and unsure.
Many of us have distinct memories of where we were and what we were doing that fated day. Modern American history feels as though it has been divided into “before” and “after” categories marked by the massive deadly attack on our own soil. As I grew up in that “after” time, in shaping my social and political identity, I found that discourse surrounding 9/11 has increasingly been marked by an idea that the tragedy brought us together, that it gave Americans a common purpose. Well, it certainly gave us a common enemy.
Our leaders and the media never appropriately targeted the real threat at hand during the fallout after the Al-Qaeda terrorist attacks. I grew up in a country reacting largely in joint anger, not necessarily at fringe extremists but rather up in arms against a generalized concept of “terror.”
Sweeping rhetoric like that, for some, quickly began to conflate “terror” with Islam as a culture and religion rather than the ideologies and indoctrination of the terrorist group itself. By the time George W. Bush announced the launch of the “War on Terror,” we had already embarked on a divisive path that has led us to put an administration in office that overtly demonizes the Islamic faith. As a grad student in the UK last year I met numerous people from countries included in the “Muslim ban” who fear they may never see family members in the U.S. again.
We say, “never forget.” Yet these days it feels like much of the country has forgotten, not necessarily the loss and the pain and the process of restoring our sense of security, but rather the mistakes that were made in the aftermath of the attack. The most patriotic thing we can do as Americans is be self-critical and reflect proactively on our past. In a country founded on the hypocrisy of African slavery and Native genocide alongside principles of democratic governance, a country that at its best is an experiment in self-governing and the meshing of cultures and ideologies, it’s time we start being honest with ourselves.
The lines that we perceive which divide us were there before 9/11, taking form in culture and as policy alike; note the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved person landing on our shores this August. But we have permitted our mainstream consciousness to allow the fall of the Twin Towers to deepen and reinforce those barriers. We will never agree politically — why should we when robust debate strengthens our policies and ideals? — but on this 18th anniversary of the scariest singular event in my lifetime in this country, I challenge us to come together around the common purpose of seeing America with clear eyes rather than rose-colored glasses. Let’s acknowledge that we’ve allowed political expediency and messaging to group us up against rather than for something.
Let’s take this American project to the next level. Recognize the mistakes of our past with eyes wide open and at the same time, set our sights toward global cooperation and tolerance. In turn, that will positively affect our relations domestically and internationally. That shall be something we shall never forget.
Main image courtesy BigStock/Alex Fiodorov