Content warning: discussion of terrorist attacks on 9/11, death count, and racism
Note: I am taking my cue from friends who are trying to distinguish the United States from America in their language. Thus, "United Statesian" instead of "American."
For most of us September 11 is a significant day. For many if not most United Statesians, it is a day of collective mourning and trauma. It is the day we decided that we would not be bullied by terrorists.
I considered myself a pacifist until the day the Twin Towers came down, when I watched the plane slam into the second tower. I never could have anticipated the bloodlust that filled me, the fear and rage the demanded swift and bloody retaliation.
Al-Qaeda? Bin Laden? I wanted them all killed immediately. I believed our government more than capable of carrying out swift and targeted assassinations of those responsible.
As the months wore on, it was painful waiting for retribution. I just wanted the U.S. to hurry up and do away with those who had cut us so deeply.
The whole sleight-of-hand didn’t escape my notice, how we invaded the wrong country. But then it seemed as though we all collectively experienced amnesia, or at least a hazy recollection about that. The invasion commenced, and we saw a desolate country bombed even further into the Dark Ages at our hands.
The body count grew. From an initial 3,000 lives lost, our War on Terror has now resulted in an estimated 7,000 U.S. troops killed and 1.3 million Iraqis, Afghanis and Pakistanis, the overwhelming majority of whom were civilians.* And while the aftermath of 9/11 includes thousands suffering from PTSD, cancer, and other health issues, those numbers are increased exponentially from the War on Terror.
How many years, and how many lives, in retaliation for 9/11? What could explain this body count, other than vengeance? How many brown lives make up for the loss of one white life? How many foreign lives for one United Statesian life?
And for fourteen years now, Muslim Americans, Americans who wear turbans, Americans who look possibly Middle Eastern, are subjected to discrimination, racism, and hate crimes. Collectively white United Statesians abandon logic, insisting that Muslims devalue life and are all potential terrorists – even though Muslims comprise nearly 1/4 of the world’s population and if that were true, a non-Muslim United States would have long since ceased to exist.
Every 9/11 we Remember, we Never Forget. We never forget the lives that were lost, the heroes birthed in an instant, out of necessity, those who rose to unimaginable feats of self-sacrifice. I hope to never forget the stories of courage and sacrifice.
But we also never forget how it felt to be so violated, and how we collectively raised our fist and declared to the terrorists, “You will not make cowards of us!”
And then we lashed out not just at terrorists, but at all Middle Easterners, at Afghanis, Iraqis and Pakistanis, at brown people. We took 430 lives for every one United States citizen lost on 9/11. We sacrificed 7,000 of our own seeking retribution. We did it wrong.
We did it wrong.
We were so blinded by hatred and fear that we lashed out, indiscriminately and repeatedly, for years. We have lashed out at our own. In order to protect ourselves from ever letting terrorists come into our country and hurt us again, in order to protect ourselves from feeling our deep fear, we have become a police state: airport security which is ever more intense, yet still woefully inept; police being equipped like military; surveillance cameras on street corners; our personal communications being monitored.
There were proud moments coming out of 9/11. So many stories of heroism. A country coming together in solidarity, declaring that we would not cower in the face of terrorism. Coming together in strength and resilience and courage.
Where did we go wrong? What could we have done differently? As a world leader, what if we did not go on a killing spree, a rampage of vengeance? What if instead, we had carried out covert actions to weed out Al-Qaeda and Bin Laden without decimating countries already desperately poor and lacking in modern technologies and civil rights?
What if instead of invading those countries with military force, we instead worked with them to strengthen real economic and government stability, worked with their citizens to support efforts of equality and civil rights? Rather than asserted our white imperialism and belief that we knew what was right for others, what if instead we helped prop up those aspects of those countries that were already improving living conditions, infrastructure, and stability?
What if instead of perpetuating our legacy as an empire, asserting as always that Might is Right, we started a new legacy – one of being an ally to countries in their efforts to improve themselves? Not sweeping in and making our usual mess of things, but acknowledging their own agency, intelligence, and abilities.
We could have chosen to be a new kind of world leader, one that fosters home-grown self-actualization, one that trusts “even” foreigners and “even” brown people to make the best decisions for their countries.
Instead we went down a well-worn path.
We did it wrong.