To Be Better: A Request, Post-9/11

As I sat in my apartment on Sunday, looking out over lower Manhattan, I felt miles away from the ceremonies that were taking place not even a ten-minute subway ride from my house. I feel isolated from this event, which in itself seems arrogant to say, yet accurate, as I do not feel like 9-11 is something that I could ever claim, if that is even possible. The day and its histories are an abstraction, something fraught and untouchable, yet part of complete normalcy that is now social fabric of the way we live now.

NY- Preparations for 9-11 Memorial, Image copyright of the Weblicist of Manhattan, Chris Brady

I was only sixteen when 9-11 happened. An announcement was made in of all things, a history class where we were discussing Pearl Harbor and the aftermath of internment camps. A blotch on history, it existed as warning into the soon-to-be future, a reminder of the worst aspects of fear, othering and paranoia.  Of course, when the announcement came on, we were all confused as to what actually happened and therefore went on as if it were just some odd circumstance that was nothing more than a minor interruption. It wasn’t until I headed to another class, where a nearby TV revealed what exactly was happening. Students and faculty all watched in still silence, as the camera panned to the top of building one, smoking, shattering, raining shards of glass from the top of the sky. We watched as a man, with what I still believe must have been the most quiet and awful type of acceptance imaginable, threw himself from the top floor restaurant of the tower. The camera followed as his limbs moving weightlessly in the air, his body flying head first into the oblivion. He disappeared into the dust and it was only then that we either became aware of the actual screams or echoed them.

This past week, I have countles times heard the phrase, “We are so much better now. We as a country are better.” Are we? I understand the logical nature of this phrase and the easy self-congratulation that come with it. The beefed-up security, the death of Osama bin Laden, health coverage for Ground Zero workers, the new memorial that graces the once gaping and angry mouth of the towers. I suppose we have made gains of a certain kind, though I am cautious in my acceptance of these. Gaps have widened, and remembrance seems to be something that comes and goes whenever it senses opportunity, often not for the better. If anything, we, as a country, seem stuck in between a chasm of being all too pleased with ourselves and yet left in a constant state of unease, wondering when exactly it goes away. To say we are better is like saying that anniversaries are enough to remember. It just isn’t honest.

I cannot begin to imagine the pain of losing someone in such a violent way. It was only when I suggested to someone that we as country begin to let this go, that I realized the utter inanity and privilege of my words. How do you tell hurt to go away?  How about trauma? Or anger? I don’t believe one can, nor is it my place to do so, as what could I possibly say about it that would reflect any semblance of honesty. I have learned that grieving is not something that happens and then is done one day, the hole eventually filled. It snakes its way through the entirety of one’s life, existing only as a mute thought one day and then the next as a completely engrossing force that eats away at everything that has been a place of strength. As I see the handmade posters of faces and names of people lost, pain palpable, I can’t help but think how nameless and faceless the toll of this entirety has been. There are no signs for Iraqi and Afghani citizens who became “war casualties.” There are no signs for those who were victim to hate crimes because they were forcefully elected as unfair representations. There are no services for countless armed services, made up mostly of twenty-year-olds, present at this day. There are no signs for all that have been lost, no memorial services for them, no speeches and no statues erected. It is hard to swallow an idea of being united when united means only those whose deaths or sacrifices we have deemed as mournful or heroic, when really it was just the absolute normalcy of day to day life that makes it so painful. The invisible can only hold weight if one attempts to see beyond the most accessible.

The comedian Hari Kondabolu once relayed his experience of when 9-11 happened. A woman had approached him outside of their dorm after the towers had fallen and with a quick exchange of words, she said to him, “Those terrorists are so mean.” We laughed over the absurd simplicity of this statement and also lamented over the fact that things could not be that black and white. While what the woman said to him was along the lines of what most young adults (this writer included) have said in their naivety and unexamined, growing view of the world, it does echo a seemingly human sentiment to boil things down to their essence.  It would be easier to live in a world where those who acted out in violence were ultimately “bad,” those who helped were ultimately “good,” and the hero always wins. It is the quintessential cowboy and Indians story, one that has ingrained itself in the psyche of our country, propping up ideas of heroes and villains, winning and losing, good and bad. Sometimes I do think it would be easier to live in a world like that.

Instead we live in a world where in the name of liberation and freedom, a twelve-year-old will turn to madrasas because our country has occupied his, destroyed his school, killed his peers, and left the acidic resentment of American imperialism. We live in a country where, in the name of religious freedom, those who spew racist vitriol and create racist policy against Muslims are the same people who were there at Ground Zero. We live in a country where, in the name of security and safety, those in power take the vulnerabilities, the fear, and the anger, to justify torture, disappearing civil liberties, and war, all while lining their friends’ pockets, blaming it on greedy schoolteachers and unions. We live in a country where, though we claim to be better, we shout at anyone that we know who we are, united we stand, that you were either with us or against us. We are so far from the potential that we thought symbolized this moment in history, the change that would shake the country from its patterns and make us realize that we needed to be better, that we had to be better.

Now ten years later, I don’t know if we seem to be any clearer on where or who we are. Flags hang and lapel pins symbolize unity. The boogeyman behind it all lies dead in the sea, and we have a president who actually knows how to pronounce terrorist and thankfully knows the difference between Iraq and Iran. For all these things pronounced as gains, we still have yet to pull out of what seems to have been one of our darkest periods, a culmination of bloodshed past, all that still stains our hands. It is hard to not see the pattern of our justification for occupation, wars, damning foreign policy, constant military presence. Vietnam, Guatemala, Panama, Libya, Pakistan, Nicaragua, Chile, and Japan– these countries could all speak to the atrocities of the force, all as warnings to rush in for the revenge we swore we would take. Now that we can conveniently place Afghanistan and Iraq on top, justifying all the deaths as necessary, it is nothing short of damning that we now say we should have never started these wars.

When Donald Rumsfeld uttered the now infamous phrase, “We don’t know what we don’t know,” he was referring to the so-called threats that the powers-that-be had the only key to knowing and stopping. That phrase feels more adequate as a warning for our future, existing more as evidence to what happens when we use fear and anger as an excuse for us to turn away from the atrocities committed in our name. We cannot abide by the pleasures of ignorance, claiming we didn’t know, especially when our history stares at us, waiting to repeat itself once again. It is only the worst of abuses that happen when we claim that “we just didn’t know,” not because of what is enacted, but because of the responsibility we claim not to inherit.

So many continue benefit from these ignorances. They benefit from the fear that hangs over our heads as a chance to stoke racial paranoia, to gain necessary votes for re-reelection, TV ratings, military occupation, violating the most basic of international human rights, or one of the other hundreds of reasons of the worst examples of self-interest and power. What can we ever stand to gain from such greed? From violence? From hate? Torture? Abuse of power? The idea that a god justifies all these things? That there is an “us” and “them”? 3.3 trillion dollars worth of debt? If we dare to claim that we are indeed, the “best” nation, a concept that just seems absurd in this rapidly globalizing world, surely this said best of nations would not base its power on the ethical, legal and immoral violations to those not only outside of this country, but to those abused within as well.

So I sit here, watching like I did in the first year, and then the years that passed, disconnected, quiet, and uncertain of where we go from here. I can only witness this type of loss as something I hope to never know myself. The only thing I can say with any semblance of honesty and certainty is that now, as we are ten years past, I hope we can look back at all that has happened and realize we are not better. I am still unsure what one does with wounds that are reopened within every political arena, with justifications for the absolute worst. Our trauma has turned into an existentialist crisis that has isolated, angered and only fed that which begets violence with more violence.  There has been a steep price paid in the name of seeking justice. If we refuse to see it now, perhaps we never will.

I strongly believe that love is a greater force than anger or sorrow. However, the problem with love is that it holds little political power, it has no monetary value, it does not stop drones in Pakistan, it will not fix the inherent divides between people, and it will not stop a social climate that we have become so accustomed to. But love does give us empathy and understanding, which I believe is one of the first steps to take when anger does not make pain go away. Rinku Sen of Colorlines has said, “I can’t call myself a person who values inclusion and compassion and then pick and choose whom I accept. I can disagree, but I cant disown- not if I want to help build a nation that accepts rather than rejects; that constructs rather than destroys; that frees rather than enslaves. In such a nation, everyone needs to feel they belong, everyone reacts to the loss of that belonging, and everyone needs to feel its renewal when things change.”

This state is an emotional, perhaps spiritual place that we must take greater and better strides towards. We must be able to re-imagine a place that we can say, we are indeed, far better then we used to be. Until then, we remain divided, fractured, and stuck within the same false narrative we have been told over and over: that we are the good guys, they are the bad guys, and that all of this is necessary in the name of something. I believe we can be so much better then this. I really do.

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