9/11 remembered, but not lived.

by Dylan Lee

Image source: Gary Hershorn 2021

When I sat down to write this piece, I was struck by the gravity of the task set before me. To convey the horror and grief that accompanies the date of Sept. 11 is a task of incredible magnitude. Although I was not alive at the time – the dark day occurred over three years before I was born – I see the anguish of those who lived through it. For me, remembering 9/11 is like looking through a warped and dirt-encrusted mirror; I know of its tragedy, but I never felt it. I have no 9/11 story. There is no work meeting or trip down the hallway when I learned a plane crashed into the World Trade Center. I will never have a 9/11 story because I was born in 2004.

For me, Sept. 11, 2001 always has been and always will be a date lining the page of a history book more than a memory seared into my brain. Growing up, hearing about that day, I knew what the end of the story would be. I knew of those who would die; I knew of the bravery of the passengers on Flight 93 and the first responders at ground zero; I knew how the core of America would be shaken, how close my country came to falling apart but how they managed to carry on. I never had to suffer through the cruel stretch of uncertainty.

The dread of those who watched dust and debris fill the air as New York City crumbled is different from the dread I feel. Now, I dread going to a foreign school far away from home, the weekend after the twentieth anniversary of September 11th. I used to dread watching the videos of the victims as they leap from the buildings. I used to dread the shadow that settles over my heart as I recall the hatred of the hijackers. I used to dread what affects only me. A peer once shared with me that he was becoming desensitized to 9/11. I do not feel I am becoming desensitized – rather this year in particular being away from my homeland, I am becoming unselfish. For the first time, I thought of how the day affects me and how it affects all Americans.

We are told the world has changed, but I never knew any different. And I likely never will. When I go to the airport, I see security as a long and tedious process. When others go, they see what used to be. My mom has told me of the days when you could walk your loved ones to the gate to wave goodbye, when random baggage checks would have been considered an invasion of privacy. Now, though, it is a way of life. I cannot imagine a life where Americans could walk so freely. Can you mourn for a world you never got to live in?

“We were so blind to the darkness of people,” my father said when he recalled that day. As I think of all the parents and soon-to-be parents during that time, I cannot help but wonder what they felt. How did they feel knowing their kids would grow up in a world where this event was discussed on an annual basis? How did they cope with their grief, knowing the world their children would grow up in had darkened that much more? Every adult I have spoken to about Sept. 11 knows where they were when they heard the news. Even the people here in France are sharing their memories from 20 years ago when they were getting out of school or turning on their television for the evening to wind down from their workday. I have been told of the rooms where they first saw the tower fall, classrooms and hospitals and homes. I have heard it was surreal seeing the footage as it occurred, an incident that could not be real. 

The annual tradition of sorts seems innocuous enough. My issue, however, lies in the oversimplification of 9/11’s lasting effects. This is not meant to belittle the physical or psychological damage inflicted 20 years ago; 9/11 can certainly be characterized as a tragedy. But what isn’t said about the aftermath is just as important as what is.

Seldom is the phrase “9/11 changed the world forever” fully unpacked in American classrooms. The moment is hailed as the nation putting its political differences aside in the name of patriotism. What this assertion fails to acknowledge is that the U.S. response to 9/11 was inherently political, and sentiments we couch as patriotism quickly manifested into downright murderous foreign and domestic policy actions.

9/11 was a catalyst for expanded military interventionism. Invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, have killed at least half a million—and that’s just from direct violence. The true toll of American militarism also includes exacerbated poverty, ravaged infrastructure and medical facilities, environmental degradation, widespread instability and displacement responsible for the ongoing refugee crisis. (The sad irony of the latter, of course, is that the U.S. (especially under the previous administration) frequently denied a home to migrants fleeing conditions created by the logic of ‘war on terror’.

We must confront the many ripple effects of 9/11 in earnest, not with a canned speech we remove from the shelf to dust off once a year. Our education system should teach students about the historical context that originally produced anti-Western ideologies held by groups such as al-Qaeda, ISIS and the Taliban. Overall, our discourse should reflect the more complex reality: 9/11 changed the world not only because of the images of smoke billowing from the Twin Towers, Pentagon and Flight 93, but because of everything that followed as well.

The grief that accompanied the crash of the first tower still lives on in Americans today. Two decades later, we may have recovered from Sept. 11, 2001, but we never really healed. Remember the lost lives of those who worked in the buildings, remember the devotion of the first responders, remember the bravery and unity America demonstrated that day.

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