On September 11, 2001, I was a junior in high school in Washington, DC. I had second period free, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to think much of it when the fire alarm suddenly rang as I caught up on homework by my locker on the Pink Floor.
As the students gathered on the lawn, in accordance with our standard fire drill practice, I got my first inkling that something might actually be wrong: the Headmistress never participates in fire drills. What is she doing here? And why isn’t she smiling?
In the moments that followed her brief comments about what was happening in New York City, our lives — and the world at large — changed forever. We went on lockdown as the Pentagon was struck, and we comforted each other as we worried for parents and watched the smoke rise in the distance. Which target might be next? How were we going to get to our homes? When would phones work again so we could check in with loved ones?
I don’t need to recap that day any further. We all had similar experiences – especially those of us who were in DC or NYC. But that’s not what I’m here to talk about.
Most years since, I diligently commemorated the anniversary of 9/11. Swollen with patriotic fervor, I posted on social media and encouraged us to unite and remember, despite our differences. As Americans, we won’t stand for such tragedy and we won’t let anyone forget it! We can’t forget who the enemy is and we must always remember that they did this to us! You know how it goes…
But this year, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. It didn’t feel right. It would have been forced. Awkward. Insincere. Not because that day wasn’t tragic – of course it was. Not because I don’t understand what we went through in the aftermath – of course I do. I’m a military brat and a military spouse. I’m well acquainted with the sacrifices we’ve made to keep 9/11 from ever happening again, but…
I’ve come to a point where nostalgically “looking past our differences” — ignoring race, gender, political affiliation, ideology — is empty rhetoric. In fact, I think it’s downright harmful. It’s a shadowy illusion behind which we make ourselves feel safe and comfortable. As I’ve emerged from this bubble of ignorance over the years, the reality is impossible to ignore or sugarcoat any longer.
We have largely exceeded the loss on 9/11 this year with the mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve killed or disabled tens of thousands of our own to post-9/11 wars that simply will not end – not to mention those we’ve killed or disabled overseas, including countless civilians. We’ve created new enemies abroad, and continued the systemic dehumanization of immigrants and communities of color right here within our borders. Our planet is struggling to keep up with our exhaustive, exploitive pursuit of profit and our leadership demonstrates no empathy and deceives us daily in an effort to maintain an increasingly questionable status quo.
The events of September 11 were undeniably tragic, and I love my country. But it’s gotten harder to have faith in its future, and harder to have faith in its people. I can’t allow that patriotic fervor to manipulate me into pretending everything is okay for a day. That we have each other’s backs. That we have a common cause. Because in many ways that truly matter, we don’t. If anything, the aftermath of 9/11 tore us further apart. I realize how this sounds, but I am discouraged. And writing this helps.
I can quietly honor the lives lost that day – as well as the heroes who sacrificed to save others – without making hollow claims of unity and harmony just to convince everyone I’m a patriot. Americans continue to sacrifice and die every day, on multiple fronts. And there is still quite a lot of work to do.