by Aimee Murphy
The very first issue of our magazine Life Matters Journal had a piece titled, “Ten Years Later” that I wrote in reflection on the sad anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. I thought it might be appropriate to share that piece again today (with some edits and additional commentary), twenty years since that awful and traumatic day in U.S. history.
I am writing this ten years to the day that those towers fell, when we lost over 3,000 precious, unrepeatable human lives, and when hundreds of other first responders and New Yorkers were forever physically and emotionally traumatized. Ten years later, I want us to discuss what we have learned from September 11, 2001, and where we as a nation must continue to grow.
I am speaking as someone who grew up in this culture, immersed in it wholly from the time I was 12 years old. Perhaps I am not the wisest, or the most sage member of society to speak on these points, but this is what I have learned from my childhood to the present.
At first, the attacks on September 11 provoked intense fear in everyone. We didn't know what was going on, what was next, or what would come. We were determined to find out the cause, the reasoning, the spirit of the event. Was it an accident? Was it war being declared upon our nation? Was it an extremist group attempting to take down our beliefs? There were so many questions, and disbelief struck us as the first response. Nationwide, we doubted that such hate could exist — we wondered how we as a nation could merit such a devastating blow.
If you might remember, as a commercial or PSA once told us shortly after the attacks, "they tried to change us... they did." And on each house was an American flag. We prided ourselves on our resilience, on the heroism of so many first-responders, on the founding tenets of our national identity. And we bonded together, as a nation, to stand up in defense of those liberties we find so vital. How beautiful — the love that each showed his neighbor, and the compassion towards our fellow man.
But — it was only towards our fellow American. We declared a "war on terror" and fear spread through the nation like a viral disease. Not explicit fear, perhaps, but the subtle prejudice against any practicing Muslim, the hate that brewed in the veins of so many against the idea of a Middle-Eastern terrorist. Our compassion was selective in that we saw all people who might even remotely be of the Islamic faith or heritage as a possible terrorist — this included both our citizens in the United States, in addition to the far-off citizens of Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, and Palestine. We held them up as "the enemy," despite the fact that our pain and suffering did not lie in the hands of the everyday citizen of these countries, but in the responsibility of a terrorist group.
And we learned that Al-Qaeda was responsible for the attacks: not a nation, not a congress or a president or a public minister of any sort. We took the fight to the soil of many different nations to seek out Osama bin Laden — we attacked the houses, farms, and business of civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq, and many other nations in the Middle East. We brought our misguided justice and “preemptive defense” to the everyday man in these countries and we caused so much pain — both physical and emotional. The fear that was brought upon us as a nation by a religious extremist group that has no national credence or boundary, we as a nation, through our military, also brought to the people of the Middle East.
And what justice have we brought about? What recumpence have we brought to those whose husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, children, siblings or friends died in the terrorist attacks on our nation on 9/11? The people who tragically died in those towers: we cannot bring them back. Killing extremists or civilians in Afghanistan will not bring them back for another minute, day, week. How many lives have been lost in our own military? How many civilian lives have been sacrificed in the name of "collateral damage" against a constantly mutating religious sect that has no home?
A war on terror is even more vague than a war on drugs: indeed, can we even claim to be fighting terror when instead terror has been planted in the hearts of our youth at such a young age? Terror is inculturated, it is an idea that we have little control over. Indeed, we can fight terrorism within our own borders perhaps by strict guidelines, maybe with national security clearance requirements. We can fight terror by promoting peace on our soil and teaching our children the truth and beauty of our fellow man. When we see our fellow man as intrinsically valuable, we are much less likely to want to inflict harm upon them. Terrorism cannot exist if we teach love and a respect for human dignity. But war-mongering, exclusive compassion, prejudice and a desire for vengeance do nothing to stop terrorism.
When Osama bin Laden was assassinated, I wept for a soul so twisted that he wished for the death of our nation, of our people, and our spirit. But even more than that, I wept because our national society wished for his death and celebrated his demise. And now, after the high of knowing that he is gone, not a one whom I know who had lost a friend or family member can say that his death makes up for the loss of their loved one, or that they feel fulfillment in knowing his assassination was successful. Because instead of taking out him alone, we took down many men, women, and children merely based upon their race, religion or location who did not deserve to be caught up in the crossfire. We let our men and women go into battle against the nebulous idea of "terror", without a specific declaration or a hardline objective. We bred fear into the hearts of our children and vengeance into the hearts of our people by profiling and prejudice, and by hate and by anger.
So what have I learned from September 11, 2001? I have learned that peace is our responsibility, and we cannot expect fulfillment from revenge. I have learned that defense does not mean so-called preemptive war. I have learned that "othering" the enemy is the most effective way to bring about prejudice, hate, and justification for collateral damage. I have learned that even the most warped minds are still human, and deserving of the dignity each of us merits in our humanity. In ten years I can't say that we have come very far in terms of respect for the human person, and we have done little to achieve more peace, despite the fact that we claim to be fighting terror for the sake of our fellow man. We must continue our efforts to uphold the life and dignity of each and every person — to see in our fellow human beings their inherent value, regardless of the nation they hail from, the religion they belong to, or the color of their skin. Ending violence and terrorism begins there.