What are we commemorating?
For the last two weeks, 911 has been all over the news. I have heard stories explaining the confluence of circumstance that lead to the attack, personal accounts of experience during the attack, and analysis of US actions in the wake of the attack. That one event was incredibly significant for many humans individually, this country as a whole, and the world altogether. And I think we're taking the wrong lesson away from it.
That kind of catastrophic attack by outside forces almost never happens in America. It is a once in a generation cataclysm. We have a massive military, but American soldiers go away to war. War always happens somewhere else. The violence of war erupts in someone else's city, the destruction of war is wrought on someone else's home, the tragedy of war rips someone else's family apart. And I watch it on the news from my safe and un-touched home.
Just like everyone else, I remember where I was when planes flew into the twin towers. I was in the same place when they collapsed shortly thereafter: fast asleep in my apartment on the West Coast. We had a party the night before and some folks spent the night. One of them saw the early morning news, ran up the stairs into my room and shouted "the twin towers in New York just got bombed! I think we're at war!" Bleary-eyed and still half asleep, I stumbled down to the livingroom to huddle around the TV with everyone else .
And that is how I spent the next few days. Gathered around the television with my friends and roommates, constantly checking my phone for updates about my family in New York City. It was a couple nerve-racking days before I confirmed everybody I knew and loved was alive and whole. War's brief appearance on American soil had left my family untouched. I was lucky.
All those someone elses are on my mind this week. Not just the other Americans who lost friends and relatives on 911, but all the people who live that reality every day in other parts of the world. America had war visit for one day. America has visited war on many other places for months and years. Millions of people have lived their whole life amidst war. Children in Yemen attend school in buildings with blown-out walls because they are in an active war zone.
Listening to thoughtful and comprehensive coverage of the 20th anniversary of 911 right on the heels of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan feels hollow. The Taliban politely ushered us out as they ushered in restrictions on the Afghan people, especially women. And on our way out, in what feels like one last act of true Americanism, we killed an Afghani aide worker along with several members of his family because we mistook him for a terrorist. The legacy of 911 isn't about protecting people or cultivating freedom, it has turned out to be about protecting the power of the powerful.
And it started pretty much right away. Before the dust had fully settled at ground zero, Congress began expanding the government's surveillance authority. Not just on faceless foreign bad guys, but on all of us at home. It passed laws, it formed new agencies, it created a commission to investigate how this horrific event could have happened. Turns out it happened because we let it happen. It happened because America often behaves like an arrogant bully.
Increased surveillance, additional airport security, invading Afghanistan and Iraq. None of that made our country safer. I am in more danger today from my own government than I ever was from foreign adversaries. Those things were all just distractions. Something to focus on so we could avoid looking at ourselves. Avoid considering how our dismissive and cruel behavior toward the rest of the world may have visited consequences upon us.
Just as we avoid looking at the consequences of our cruel and dismissive behavior toward each other. That avoidance is enshrined in all the statues of confederates like Robert E Lee. Those monuments are not about venerating a stellar commanding officer or celebrating bravery. They are about not being wrong. The people who went to war with America to keep enslaving other people lost that war, but they didn't lose their dedication to white supremacy. They built monuments to it.
Similarly, the 911 memorial is not about honoring the lives of the people who died that day or celebrating the bravery of the first responders. It is about perpetuating the myth of America as a victim of circumstance. The people who died that day and their families who live on without them are the victims of our collective failure to be honest with ourselves.
Fortunately, we have an excellent example for how to do that in people like Silvia Foti. She initially set out to finish a biography of her grandfather, a celebrated Lithuanian war hero. Through her research she discovered a very different legacy. Her grandfather worked with the Nazis to round up Jews and displace them from their homes. Later he directly supervised the mass murder of thousands. So Silvia is now working to set the record straight.
She has faced fierce opposition, just as anyone in the US does when they try to remove a statue of General Lee. And just as many Americans ask why we need to keep talking about slavery and racism since they are things in the past, many have asked Silvia why she can't just let the history lay in the past. The events may have occurred a long time ago, but the denial about what actually took place continues today. She says, "The denial is what makes it current."
We have to set the record straight. We have to set all the records straight, especially the ones at home. Ignoring the seeds of terrorism we sew will not prevent them from blossoming. Pretending white supremacy was something else will not change racism. We can never move on until we acknowledge where we’ve been. And I'd really like to move on to a better version of ourselves.
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Jaydra is a human in-process, working to make the world a better place. Sharing thoughts, feelings, and observations about the human experience.