September 11, 2001: What America Has Learned

”Where were you during 9/11?” 

When the first rays of the 21st century dawned on America, the nation’s citizens knew nothing more than peace and hope for the future to come.5

Their enjoyment of seeing the light of day ended abruptly, in colossal rubble, smoke, and countless deaths. 

September 11, 2001 marked one of the most tragic man-made incidents in history. Thousands met an atrocious end, their dreams crushed in an instant—no one saw it coming.

Many people today remember 9/11/2001 through memories shared yet distinct. Some watched it from far away, through a live broadcast on television, feeling crippling helplessness as their eyes are fixated at death and despair. Others bear witness to the tragedy themselves in ground zero, their inability to breathe through the smog not as painful as their inability to comprehend the horrors unfolding before them.

Yet, the sentiments were all the same: shock, confusion, sorrow, frustration, indignation, hatred, all echoing then as they continue to do so today. The event left marks on not only American citizens but also people around the world as one of the most prominent in human history. Its significance lies in those sentiments mentioned before, manifesting in debates and questions of who is to blame and what can be done to prevent incidents of such scale from happening again. 

In such light, reflection is key, its object being memory. Reflection is done best if its aim is to bring such memory to light that it endows insights and lessons in the most profound and optimistic way. To commemorate an event such as 9/11 is to give it justice, not only for the people who passed but also for the generations to come. But to do so, we must first strip ourselves of our current predispositions of the event, be it neutral or malignant.

Just as September 11, 2001 was remembered well with a question, so too shall its reflection be grounded in questions.

How can America uphold its virtues amid anti-Islam hatred?

“Where were you when the Twin Towers fell?”

Four hijacked planes, each carrying hundreds of passengers who had known nothing more than that they were going somewhere. Each plane, never reaching the destination that it was supposed to arrive at. The World Trade Center,bustling with people engaging in their own business matters. The Pentagon, busy with ensuring nationwide protection out of patriotism. Every other American citizen, going about their Tuesday morning like any other morning.

Then, came the crashes. In an instant, the peace that they knew was gone. In an instant, so much confusion ensued. One thing is certain: this will forever haunt them, and they may never know peace again.

The sprawling fields of the land of the free had been laid to waste. The optimism with which Americans viewed the future had been all but dead. They were never stripped of their freedom, but they refused to move in fear.

Most definitely, the 9/11 attacks shook the United States down to its very core. Its mission, supposedly, has and always will be inclusivity and equity, that all who dwelled there would reap every luxury and joy obtained in the pursuit of happiness. Long and hard were the country’s efforts to move forward from what they learned, from the atrocities that they caused to the Native Americans, to the African slaves, to the ones who they oppressed under their rule. There were traces, still, of their oppression, but more prominent was the dream of unity and compassion.

Just as the World Trade Center fell apart, so too did the values that served as the foundation of America. Its citizens started to doubt the strength and practicality of such values. They had been abused, beaten, and thrown under the bus because of the very ideals that they stood with. Are ideals not for the greatest good? What use are ideals if they would lead us to rubble?

Philosopher Karl Popper envisioned that a society cannot be completely tolerant, for if it is, those who are intolerant will eliminate the tolerant. For a tolerant society to thrive, it must be intolerant to the intolerant. America embodied this paradox once, and wanted to learn from it. The means with which they did so, however, are extreme. What spawned is nationwide institutionalized racism. People flying to the US are subjected to detailed background checks on their declared religion, place of birth, and so on. The prime target of this: Muslims.

Even outside this, racial profiling is rife throughout the country. Racism in the workplace against Muslims rose exorbitantly. As if to turn the tables, America has been made to be unsafe to Muslims. Popper’s tolerant society turned extreme—a negative consequence. 

Granted, the recovery process has been slow, and sentiments of hope and peace returned steadily. During the healing phase, however, malignant cells entered through the open wound and infected the damaged whole, an infection that persists until today.

“Where were you when the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked?”

“One death is a tragedy, one million deaths is a statistic.”

Four planes hijacked, each flown to a particular location—two to the World Trade Center, one to the Pentagon, one failed to reach the US Capitol—all acting in unison on a busy Tuesday morning. A timeframe of less than two hours. Nearly three thousand casualties, from the impact to the aftermath. It all happened too quickly. 

No doubt is this a coordinated assault. Doubtless, also, is this an act of terrorism, serving to strike terror into the hearts of American citizens. The shock of it all spawned questions demanding a response to the absurdity that had unfolded. Who is responsible? Where will they hit next?

Former US president George W. Bush declared a state of emergency by then. It was understandable: such a large scale attack confirmed the possibility of other attacks of such magnitude. Momentarily, America was on the defensive, and repairs were underway.

Simultaneously, the attacks were turned into a justification for hatred against Islam and its believers. “A good offense is the best defense.” “They cannot get at us if we get to them first.” In a word, the response of some: “eye for an eye.” 

Thus, the Iraq War sprung, with its cause the 9/11 attacks, its target the terrorist organizations: Al-Qaeda, once led by Osama bin Laden who allegedly called for the attacks, and today the Taliban, another extremist group, it justifying itself as the “United States’s war on terror”—a just cause, a good movement. Nearly two decades following the event, and even years after Osama bin Laden’s death, the war still goes on.

To some, this is a justification for the hatred against the Muslims. Their whole religion, their belief system, ideals, culture, values, are all boiled down to a single word: terrorist. Anything attributed to them is a mark of terror. All of the actions that they commit are in pursuit of their Sharia Law, with the grand plan of taking over the world.

Hatred breeds hatred, and hatred is truly blinding. Bush was more concerned with the Iraq War than he was with assuring the US people. Perhaps “actions spoke louder than words.” Perhaps the war was the assurance to the US people, that they will no longer be terrorized because the source of terror will soon be liquidated. The paragon of patriotism—but it was an insufficient assurance: vague at best, misdirecting at worst. 

Former US president George W. Bush tried to awaken the patriotic spirit in the American for the better - and for the worse.

“We have killed the king, but we did not cut off his head,” Michel Foucault once said. If terror is to be ended, it must be done so for good, lest it only be continued by the very people who ended it. George W. Bush, however, was not clear on that end. He only wanted to put a stop to the terrorists. A fine cause, but that he did not aim at terror itself only served to perpetuate it. 

Though not so much at the magnitude of the Al-Qaeda, it was the underlying hatred that infected the US citizens, manifesting even until today, and it hides under the name “patriotism.” The love of country springs the hate of others.

Frank Silva Roque shot and killed Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh-American who was mistaken as a Muslim because he sported a beard and a turban.

Terry Jones, a pastor of the Dove World Outreach Center who believed that Islam promotes violence, planned a controversial event that aimed to muster people for a collective effort of burning Korans.

Mark Anthony Stroman shot three men as an act of vengeance against Arabs. His criterion for choosing his targets? They look like people “of Muslim descent.” Only one of his victims was truly Muslim.

The 9/11 attacks, deserving of indignant outcry as they are, are just as undeserving to be reciprocated with violence. The paradox goes: “We go to war to achieve peace.” This is absolute nonsense. War is glorified violence, and violence has no true end. The United States’s war on terror is never on a war on terror; it is a war on terrorists. When blood is spilled, it will continue to spill. Violence does not lead to peace—violence necessitates violence. Humanity thrives in peace and unity, and is deterred by violence.

There are no victors in war, no supremacy in violence. When a human being harms another out of spite, humanity fails. Hatred begets hatred—a vicious cycle that would wipe out all of mankind, if left unchecked.

Where are you today?

A few decades prior, there was another incident that saw the deaths of many American lives. The Jonestown massacre bore witness to the end of 918 people, their deaths caused by murder-suicide, all in a single night. They were all members of the Peoples Temple, a cult that isolated themselves from the world around them. They were led to such end because their leader, Jim Jones, convinced everyone with delusions of hatred and paranoia of the outsiders. The precursor to this atrocity: Congressman Leo Ryan assassinated after visiting and assessing the Peoples Temple town, even though he would report that the town is benign.

Decades later, history repeats itself, but the suicide is subtle.

Most definitely, 9/11 paved the way to drastic changes in public policy of all things perceived “non-American,” split between neutral, at least, and resentful, at worst. The shock remains palpable and it will last long into the future. Such a tragic event left an eternal mark on the minds and hearts of the American people. It is understandable: they upheld the values of inclusivity and compassion that rested on the foundation of trust, and that trust had been broken.

Violence was the immediate instinct. Who, after such heartbreak, would not burst in rage and frustration? By this end, many justify the United States’s war on terror as warranted. Yet, just because it is instinctual does not mean it is right. If we were to resort to instinct in all of our endeavors, we would never move forward. Humanity progresses through unity and mutual understanding—violence merely deters it.

Violence is never the answer.

The most significant point of all is that violence is not simply a matter of binary, of the violent and the violated. In violence, everyone is on the unfortunate receiving end. Those who are violated, become violent in retaliation, and those who are violent, violated their own principles. A murder-suicide, where no one wins. Nothing is given justice, and nothing matters.

In the pursuit of exterminating travesty and atrocity, we must always strive to go straight to eliminating its very roots. Killing those who commit crimes is only plucking the fruits of the bad tree. We must, instead, uproot this tree. But such a task is difficult. Its roots run deep, coursing through miles of soil in history. Granted, it has been there since the dawn of humanity. It makes it very much more difficult—but it is an endeavor worthy of all of our efforts.

As 9/11/2001 is commemorated until today, we will best learn from this tragedy by remembering to stay together, regardless of what happens. The day of reckoning comes when humanity turns on itself. Contemporary times have deemed it difficult to stay together because of differences. But a unity that stays together despite the differences of its constituents is the strongest kind. 

Though it has been nearly two decades since the attacks on September 11, 2001, it is never too late to sail forth to the frontier of peace. It does not have to recover the same peace it had known. Aside from repairs for the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, such peace is weak and susceptible to the kind of downfall it had when the attacks took place. Instead, what America can hope to achieve is a peace that is informed, ready to evolve, ready to adapt—come what may—and becomes stronger at the end without compromise on anyone’s part. Such is the spirit of America.

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