Time to Move On

Okay. It’s 10 September 2011, and I am 9/11’ed out.

Our nation experienced a tremendous tragedy on that day, and it deserves remembrance and reflection, but I am amazed at the extent to which the concept of “9/11” has been inflated and distorted in politics and the media. Our national sense of victimization has been used to justify all sorts of policies and actions, many of which I feel run counter to the ideals this nation stands for. After a decade, I wonder why our leaders and pundits have had such a hard time getting past the “every day is September 12th” mentality.

To me, the day of the attacks on 11 September 2001 demonstrated how we could come together as a nation under one flag, with common goals, common spirits, and common sympathies. Our divisions and distinctions meant very little on that day: instead, we were all Americans. 12 September 2001 was a powerful day in our nation’s history.

Since then, though, our reaction to the attacks has come to represent, to me, a series of national failures.

I look at the people who responded to the 9/11 attacks – people who demonstrated exceptional stoicism and heroism, people whose concern for their fellow countrymen and women overcame fears for their personal safety, people whose faith in their comrade responders gave them the strength to move towards danger rather than away from it. The thought that there were firefighters streaming into those towers and up the stairs until the moment they collapsed is truly astounding. And yet, to this day, our politicians bicker and dither on whether our nation should do some part to help support those who came to our aid in our darkest hour.

The whole nation of America has internalized the notion that we are victims of 9/11. People far from New York City feel that they, too, were directly attacked – a testament to New York City as a lasting icon of America and American ideals. Yet in the years since, I’ve seen neoconservatives in the punditry vilify the families of the people who lost their lives on 9/11, for whatever reason, while they are happy to simultaneously use the specter of 9/11 to justify who-knows-what actions, from torture to spying to invasion.

The United States went to war, twice, with the sentiment of September 12th. We have killed and died in the Middle East, and spent an amount of national treasure that makes the 2009 stimulus look like small change. Yet whether these wars made us more secure from terrorist attacks like those on 9/11 is still an issue for debate – and likely we will not know the answer to that question without the hindsight of history. In the end, it was not an invasion of Afghanistan or Iraq* that brought the true perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks to justice, but a small commando raid nine years after the fact – essentially, an international police action. And in the meantime, al-Qaeda was happy to put out announcements boasting about how much sympathy our invasion of Iraq had garnered for their cause. That it took us so much time, effort, resources, and lives to learn how to properly fight this ill-defined “war on terror” is disheartening to me.

During the time between 11 Sep 01 and the invasion of Iraq, I think that we as a nation began to confuse the concepts of patriotism and jingoism. There was a philosophy in the public sphere suggesting that to question the actions of the American government, and especially to question the justifications for invading another Middle-Eastern country, was not patriotic. Questioning torture was unpatriotic. Questioning whether Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction was unpatriotic. In the words of our President, “You are either with us, or you are with the terrorists.” I believe that attitude damaged us as a nation, and a decade later, its effects on our politics reverberate with us to this day.

Most sickening to me is the backlash we have seen against American Muslims. This nation was founded on ideals of religious freedom – the thirteen original colonies refused to ratify the Constitution until it included protections against religious persecution, which have been enshrined in the First Amendment. America has always stood for the idea that anyone could come here and become anything that they wanted, even if it took us years to accept that that sentiment really did apply to everyone. We have learned: we learned from Irish immigrants and Asian immigrants, we learned from the Civil Rights Movement among African-Americans, we are still learning from the gay rights movement and from Hispanic immigration. The lesson we learn each time, though, is the same: we are all American. To see us take a step backwards by inventing hatreds against a people seemed, in a nutshell, profoundly un-American. It is not “in poor taste” to build a mosque in New York City – it is a triumph of American ideals over the philosophy of al-Qaeda. Let us never forget that, while the hijackers used Islam to justify their actions, Timothy McVeigh used Thomas Jefferson to justify his. Any person, philosophy, or religion can be taken out of context and distorted to justify a wide range of behaviors. So let Americans stop vilifying Islam because of the attacks.

I have to admit that perhaps this view of the legacy of 9/11 comes from my own reactions on the day itself. I felt angry and upset, but the events seemed remote to me and my feelings ended up…displaced. You see, on the morning of 11 September 2001, I was a senior in a Massachusetts high school, and sitting in calculus class when a runner came from the main office to deliver a note to the teacher. She read it and, while the students joked about who had to go to the office now, she mouthed “oh, my God” to herself. The students could all tell how much her mood had shifted, and we asked what happened.

At this point, I feel the need to reiterate that while we were in school, we were the senior class. Some of my classmates were old enough to vote. Some of them were old enough to join the military. We asked the teacher what the note was about and she put it aside, looked at us, and said the words: “This is way too important for you to know about.”

That was my school’s mentality: hide the events of the day from the students. It didn’t work at all. The vice principal pulled one of classmates out of the room to give him a brief sketch of events and tell him that his sister, in New York city, was all right – he promptly shared what little he knew with everyone in the room. Some students were pulled out of school by their parents, and before they left, they explained whatever they had gleaned about why. One of my friends used the cafeteria pay phone (barely anyone had a cell phone at the time!) to call home; someone in his family narrated the TV news to him, and he related it to the cafeteria at large. The net effect was that, at various times throughout the morning, students thought that there had been as many as a few dozen airplanes hijacked, or that maybe there had been a failure of the air traffic control system such that there were ten airline crashes at once in Pennsylvania, or that the White House and Pentagon had been blown up. I, for one, simply could not believe that the World Trade Center towers could have possibly collapsed, and my mind was filled with visions of them toppling sideways and crushing other buildings.

I was pissed off at the school – because at the time, I wasn’t just a nice, responsible, honors student who felt he could have handled this information. I also happened to be the Cadet Commander of the local Civil Air Patrol squadron. I had emergency services qualifications. On 9/11, after air traffic was grounded, the only aircraft in American airspace belonged to the military and to the Civil Air Patrol. Members of my squadron boarded their aircraft to fly blood for transfusions to New York City. One of my squadronmates was actually on the phone with NORAD to negotiate flight paths for those small Cessnas. Some of the first aerial reconnaissance photos of Ground Zero, giving emergency workers the ability to assess the damage and plan rescue and recovery efforts, came from CAP missions. I was angry at the school, because I could have helped. In some small way, I could have made a difference to the response efforts. In retrospect, I feel guilty that I didn’t just march down to the main office, show them my CAP ID, and demand to call the squadron commander.

I feel that it’s likely that my impotency on that day colored my reactions to the attacks in general, and fueled my frustration as I watch our national policymakers and news organizations struggle to come to grips with the conflicting ideas that America is the most powerful nation in the world and that a dozen bigoted zealots can cause us so much harm. Over time, their struggle has produced the policy failures I alluded to earlier.

But I harbor hope for the future. Slowly, our national debate is evolving, and I am sure that eventually the “9/12 mentality” will become a much smaller part of our discourse. We are starting to pick up the pieces from our wars abroad, and starting to focus on the shape of our policies at home. At some point, we may stop using the September 11th attacks to define what is and is not American. After all, the children who are too young to remember the events of 9/11 are in middle school now.

It is time for us, as a nation, to move on. Let us remember the courage and sacrifice of that day, and let us go forward with the memory of those who lost their lives to make this country a better place for their families.

On that final note, I will leave you with this poignant video:

* Yes, most of the argument for war against Iraq did not explicitly invoke 9/11. However, remember that one of the justifications presented to the American people in the run-up to the Iraq invasion was that the 9/11 hijackers had met with high-level Iraqi officials. Even without that explicit link, I doubt that the invasion authorization would have passed Congress, or passed muster with the American people, without the events of 11 Sep 01.

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