What Does It Mean to Move On Twenty Years After 9/11?

September 8th, 2021

Early September days are among the most beautiful days we get in the mid-Atlantic. The dry air we typically get at this time of year, the temperate days and cool nights are a relief after the humid heat of August. The smell of leaves as they begin to yellow and summer’s last wildflowers gives this time its own smell, its own feel.

For those of us who lived in New York in the early years of this century, the blue-sky beauty of these days has special associations. For me, a melancholy grows as the first days of September tick by. I find myself more sensitive than normal, irritable, and I don’t know why – until the 8th or so arrives and I remember.

Photo credit: Cole Moreton

September 5th, 2001, a Wednesday, was my first day of third grade in a squat brick public school on the Brooklyn waterfront. The following Tuesday, I watched planes hit the towers from the window of our second-period classroom.

There’s a lot I don’t recall from that time. What sticks in the mind of a nine-year-old can be quite random. One of the strongest images that remains with me to this day is that of the posters of the missing that stayed up around the city for months – years, some of them.

Everyone was angry and sad. I often didn’t understand what the adults around me were reacting to: the signs and symbols of the political world was yet unknown to me. But the grief, shock, and anger of adults around me during that time is unforgettable. I learned what unforgiveness looks like, and the punitive violence that unforgiveness on a mass scale can inflict.

I often feel rather alone in my feelings as this anniversary arrives. Having been in grad school for the last few years, everyone around me seems absorbed in the hustle and bustle of the start of the semester. Few of my classmates had any personal experience of 9/11. Younger students have no memory of it. Times when I’ve found a classmate to commiserate with who had a similar close personal experience were precious.

This year, the world seemed to begin to mark the anniversary before I did. Even before commemorative articles, the memorial services, and the faux-patriotic advertisements began to populate my newsfeed, the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan in August initiated this cycle of memory. There were many reasons behind the timeline of troop withdrawal, but the twenty-year anniversary of their arrival was no small factor. How badly the withdrawal played out was bitter and ironic, but not incongruous with the bitterness of the entire twenty-year period.

The sight of two small bodies falling from the sky in the airport debacle on August 16th was a horrific reminder of what New Yorkers saw 20 years ago, and what Vietnamese evacuees saw nearly 50 years ago: in each case, unnecessary and tragic deaths.

So, too, were the words spoken on television by this President a few days later, nearly echoing those of 20 years ago: “We will not forgive. We will not forget.”

The US withdrawal from Afghanistan makes it feel like we’ve come full circle. But that doesn’t mean we’re back to where we started. 2,751 people died on 9/11, and some 2,000 responders and survivors later lost their lives due to toxic exposure. In the past 20 years, some 241,000 lives have been lost in the post-9/11 wars, including over 15,000 US service members and contractors, 177,000 coalition partners, 71,000 civilians, and 30,000 US service members and contractors who died by suicide. An entire generation of Afghans was raised during the American occupation, just as many of their parents grew up during the Soviet occupation. Muslim and Sikh Americans have had to live with discrimination and hate crimes.  Americans my age and younger have lived their entire adolescence with American occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq seeming, perhaps, normal.

There is no going back. And the terrible human toll of these wars should not be forgotten. But going forward, and remembering, doesn’t have to mean continuing to repeat the cycle of violence. It frightened me to hear the unforgiveness in President Biden’s rhetoric last month. More than anything else, unforgiveness is what carries violence forward.

There are other ways to commemorate lives lost and destroyed. Twenty years ago, New Yorkers and others affected received an outpouring of compassion from around the world. This year, we’ve already seen incredible acts of kindness for Afghan refugees and survivors. Veterans still need care, as do all marked by the trauma of this era. There are lessons to take from this time, if we take the time to consider them.

This week of memorials aside, it’s clear that most Americans don’t really want to think about the consequences of 9/11 and our broader involvement in the Middle East and the world. We have crisis fatigue. The last several years have brought one natural disaster and political crisis after another; the economy is not working for most; and we have lost more lives in the last two years of the pandemic than in the entire twenty years of the post-9/11 wars. But remembering cannot mean repeating the same old cycles of lashing out in misdirected violence. What can we do differently to turn lives lost into new life? How can we come together as Americans and as a global community to build anew amidst all the suffering we’ve experienced in the last few years?

Humans are capable of the most incredible acts of love, generosity and compassion. We are also capable of the most awful acts of violence and hate. Many lessons can be taken from this era. If we, as Americans – as a global community – take just one, I hope it is this: not to hold on to unforgiveness or shrink into isolationism, but to take the risk of trust, and build new life, together.