I’m intentionally posting this a few days before September 11th, so that it won’t be perceived as a response to anyone in particular who chooses to share that day…. I’m usually too busy with the beginning of the school year to voice many of my 9/11 thoughts, but I always think about it. It’s a day of mourning that I feel even more intensely as time goes by. Obviously we honor and mourn the lives lost. But I feel like those individuals weren’t the only losses that day… I feel like my generation lost a lot of our innocence, and our country started losing our grasp on what it even means to be an American.
Every year, among the reflections on September 11th, I see people speak nostalgically about how our country “pulled together” in response to the attacks. How there was a great sense of unity in the days that followed. But as much as I want that to be true, I just don’t see it that way. Even at the time, I didn’t see it that way.
I was in my senior year of high school, and working on our school’s newspaper that semester. A month or so afterward, I remember writing an editorial for the paper about patriotism. (Part of me wishes I could see a copy of it now, but most of me is glad I don’t have to cringe at younger Kristine’s words… So if anybody weirdly has access to those archives, please don’t share them!) I was really bothered by how trendy patriotism had become. Flags on everything. Everyone was making a quick buck by marketing red, white, and blue. Consumers felt like they were taking a stand and fighting terrorism by wearing tshirts bedazzled in stars and stripes.
I remember struggling to write the editorial and articulate why it bothered me so much. It’s not that I was anti-flag; something inside of me just felt like the entire concept of patriotism was being cheapened, and something else was being missed. My instincts said there were bigger issues to be grappled with, questions to be asked, values to be examined, stands to be taken… I don’t think I ever successfully figured out what those bigger issues were at the time, but I sensed them there, buried under an enormous pile of flaggy paraphernalia.
(Incidentally, I recently learned that the earliest flag desecration laws, passed between 1897 and 1905, were intended to keep the flag from being used for commercial purposes or political campaigns. Using our nation’s symbol for personal gain was considered unpatriotic.)
Maybe in 2001 I didn’t have the language to talk about what I was seeing, because I hadn’t experienced anything like it before. I was a raised-in-the-90s kid, and my world seemed like a pretty good place. The economy was good. War was something we read about in history books. I knew racism wasn’t dead, but I thought we were quickly heading in that direction. I had my religion; other people had theirs; and I only knew it as a positive force in any of our lives. Maybe the 90s weren’t really as idyllic as I remember them, but it was easy to believe from my little bubble. The world’s major problems felt so far away, in the international news segment, far removed from my world.
Then it all broke. The happy world I’d always known, where everybody holds hands and chases the American Dream together, was gone. And it happened so fast!
Suddenly, Americans turned their backs on each other. Anyone who looked like they might be either Muslim or Middle Eastern became the enemy. In August, they’d been Americans like any other, but in September, they became dangerous. One day, they were just living their lives like any of us; the next, they carried the burden of an entire nation’s fear, anger, suspicion, and hate.
I was shocked, scared, and saddened by the September 11th attack. But I was no less shocked, scared, and saddened by the series of attacks that we made on each other afterward. The attacks — variably physical, mental, and emotional — that our Muslim, Middle Eastern, or I-dunno-they-just-look-like-bad-guys neighbors had to endure. Technically, I did know that Americans were capable of this; I’d studied the Japanese-American interment camps of WWII. But that was our grandparents’ world! I thought we’d learned from our history, and become a nation of better people. I couldn’t believe the same racist blame game was happening right before my eyes.
Except I’m using the wrong verb tense. Those attacks aren’t in the past; they still happen. My naive 2001 self might have assumed it would all settle down, but look at our country today…. While my high school self didn’t know modern America could be so deeply divisive, today’s high school kids don’t know it any other way.
When we were all trying to make sense of the attack on the twin towers, I remember being baffled at why Al-Qaeda called us an anti-Islamic country. I’d never had reason to give Islam much thought one way or the other before. It seemed like such a wild accusation against my united-we-stand country. #ePluribusUnum
But here we are, 15 years later, and it feels like the terrorists are winning. Every time they attack, whether it’s a legitimate terrorist or a lone bad actor, we respond by lashing out at our Muslim community. We’re letting the bad guys mold us into the monster they always said we were. Which provokes further trauma and terrorism. Rinse and repeat.
If anybody had asked my teenage self to define “American,” I would have thought it was a crazy question. An American is someone who lives in America–what else could it possibly be? I thought the United States was like the Olive Garden, “When you’re here, you’re family.” But for the last 15 years, I’ve felt the question buzzing in the air. I’ve seen the hierarchy emerge, where some people are considered “more American” than others. I’ve seen those with darker skin pigmentation, or those who identify as any religion but Christian, forced to carry a higher burden of proof as to whether they’re truly American. Whether they truly belong.
Late 2001 was when I started hearing debates between civil liberties and security, and feeling pressure to choose a team. Again, this wasn’t the America I thought I knew. I thought we could have both. Maybe I was naive, but I thought the US aimed for a healthy balance between the two. That balance was thrown dramatically in 2001, and now I live in a country with fewer civil liberties than ever… and I don’t feel any safer. Who’s winning?
I’m afraid I don’t look back on September 2001 with any warm and fuzzy memories of unity. I only remember it as the day our communities splintered. As quickly as we plastered the flag across our tshirts, our hearts started forgetting what it means to be American. So, here we are, and I have to look to the future instead. I have to hope that we can eventually come back together, remember why we’re all here, and what ties us together.