Looking back on 9/11 I don’t think I could have predicted the subsequent 10 years. Other people did. They talked about a new age for American people; a fundamental change to the country. I was too wrapped up in my own studies at college to really devote enough attention to really generate the fear and panic the rest of the country seemed to be feeling. After 10 years the memories serve to reveal the kind of people we are, and the kind of people we want to be. 9/11 and the subsequent 10 years provided us with a mirror so we could see ourselves for who and what we are.
At the precise moment of the planes hitting the towers, I was a freshmen in college sitting through an early-morning science class and trying to stay awake. Even now I can’t be completely sure which class it had been. My first inkling of trouble was when I returned to my dorm room after my class for a free period between my early science class and the beginning of a scheduled school assembly. When I walked into the dorm there were an unusually large group of guys standing around watching the television. It might have been a bit early for TV, but the guy’s dorm would have been oddly empty if there hadn’t been someone watching it at any particular hour. On the television was tall building with smoke pouring out of it. I was told something about how a plane had collided with a tower somewhere. I imagined a small plane accidentally hitting the tower, and I thought this was vaguely and grimly funny. It was something on the level of the Darwin awards. How incompetent do you have to be to hit a freakin’ skyscraper in downtown somewhere? I stayed for a moment to watch the television but they didn’t really seem to be talking about anything. I walked back to my room and in generally putted around for twenty minutes until it was time to go to the assembly. When the University President addressed the students, he said two planes had collided into the Twin Towers. They had collapsed.
As in collapsed. They fell? This couldn’t possibly be. I just saw them on the TV. I wanted to run back to the dorm to check and see if the television was faulty. I also had the extremely guilty thought that if I had been willing to be late for the assembly I could have seen the towers fall for myself. I don’t remember the rest of the speech. I think it had something to do with school outreach to New York and prayers or something. The awful gravity of the situation didn’t really sink in until later that afternoon when no one seemed to think that grounding every airplane in the country was an overreaction. Up until that point, I was still wondering if I still had classes that afternoon.
The biology department cancelled its classes and one of the professors set up a small TV in the hallways outside of his lab. Information came in bits and fragments, when it came at all. A newswoman was saying that there could be as many as 50,000 people working in the buildings at any given time. There was something going on at the Pentagon and Pennsylvania. Fortunately, over the next few days the death toll kept being revised downward. This was the first view we have of ourselves. Stories of heroism began to percolate. Stories about rescuers running into the burning buildings and perishing there. Stories about outreach and friendship. For the first time since New York was a Dutch colony, the denizens of that place developed a short-lived beneficence toward another. In an outpouring of support and camaraderie, our NATO allies sent warplanes to patrol our skies like a bunch of Mach2 blankies.
I remember how we vowed as a country we we’re not going to be afraid, and we were not going to let the terrorists win, while at the same time letting our fear motivate us into unwinable wars, torture, and the oppressive need for new security measures. I’m not even altogether certain when it was in these myriad of events that the word terrorism was first uttered. But soon it had seemingly replaced all the other words in the dictionary. It was the year of anthrax, yellow cake, WMDs, and another geography lesson for Americans regarding central Asia.
When I say it was the day we failed, I’m not talking about intelligence failures, structural defects, absent WMDs, or truth issues, I’m talking about how our short-lived beneficence was cruelly withheld from those with even the vaguest resemblance to Muslims. Because of fear and hatred, we abandoned our egalitarianism and enlightenment for crass xenophobia and revenge. With flagrant hypocrisy we put, “national security” above human rights and used that common excuse to abuse and torture.
Perhaps this controlled violence saved lives by disrupting terrorist plots, maybe it cost lives as Guantanamo became a recruitment ad for terrorists. Perhaps in the chaos of war it never mattered at all. God only knows. I only know that when our ideals were tested, we failed them. 9/11/2011 is a day of remembrance, and it behooves us to remember not only this tragedy but the others before it. In many ways, we’ve improved as a country. Unlike the past, we didn’t use biological weapons on anyone, forced marches, or ship our own citizens off to camps in California. We may have learned from the past, but that does not exempt present cruelty.
In the wake of 9/11 we see a version of our country where xenophobia is the norm. Where we’ve forgotten that meaningless persecution of race and religion is the grossest betrayal of our founding principles. However much of an improvement, we still have a long way to go as a people. For example noted political commentator, Juan Williams, once stoked controversy when he said he feels very nervous when getting on-board an airplane with observant Muslims. He’s obviously entitled to his own feelings and in the wake of 9/11 it’s a very human reaction. It’s an understandable reaction. The problem is that he said this without the slightest bit of shame or regret. He’s not a bad man, just a small one.
The greatest tragedy of 9/11 was not the lamentable loss of life for which we still grieve. The tragedy of the falling towers was that they somehow made us all something a little smaller. It was a grievous wound and worthy of revenge. 9/11 did not make us this way. It just somehow gave us an excuse.
Terrorism has personal, economic, social and politico-military implications, it is the penultimate act of nihilism. Meaningless destruction, on any scale, is nothing more than artistic rage and is self-defeating in the long term. Ten years later, I don’t think that anyone believes anthrax, yellow cake, WMDs are in every cave, just waiting for the chance to destroy us. As much as we may wish it, 2001 was not a fevered dream. The consequences are real. Whatever else terrorism has done, it has shown us our two faces. It has illuminated the choice we have before us.
The antidote to rage will never be hatred and prejudice. In the face of anger and hostility we should rise to the challenge of magnanimity and moderation and embrace the principles of equality and equanimity upon which our country was founded. Without them, we will forever be victims to a blood-soaked pyromania. We may be attacked again. On that day I hope we will find a better version of ourselves.