The media buzz began early in the summer, rising to a cicada chorus by August. We all knew the tenth anniversary of 9/11 was coming up, and like every great anniversary, media outlets everywhere were preparing video montages, documentary showings, and discussion panels. The great majority of what I’ve seen, heard, and read over the past month or so has involved replaying the day’s events, analyzing our military and political response following the attacks, and preparing for grand commemorative events on Sunday, the 11th.
Events and discussions that honor and pay respect to this tragic day are an integral part to our national and persons healing process, but I think we are robbing ourselves of needed reflection if we stop here. For healing to become growth, reflection needs to be a part of our response to this tragedy. Without reflection, we simply stare into the past. Through reflection, we look at the past and see it’s image turned back on to us; we see who we were and what we were a part of, and then grow into who we can become.
While many of my fellow Americans have spent many hours of reflection following 9/11, I would be remiss if I didn’t state my most pressing observation: As a nation we seem to be afraid of sincere reflection.
The days following 9/11 were of heightened patriotism. We felt vulnerable following the attacks, and thus came together all across the nation to show our solidarity. There were a lot of great interfaith and intercultural gatherings that challenged and condemned the actions of the 9/11 terrorists. People of all creeds and colors lined up to donate their time, blood, and love to the victims of attacks. The tragic events on 9/11 took around 3,000 lives. To be affected was to be human.
But it seems our common humanity was quickly overcome by the need to find answers and respond. We momentarily honored our victims, and then moved on to revenge–locally and internationally. Post-9/11 America revealed a lot of insecurities in our national identity and thus put many people on the defensive. Instead of reflecting on what 9/11 was and who we were in the moment, we acted and responded. We lifted our chests, raised our flags, and set up an arbitrary fence around what it meant to be an American. Our international political and military responses are pretty well documented and debated and I don’t feel the need to contribute to such a robust field of commentary. I am more interested in how we responded locally, even individually.
I have heard many stories like that of fellow State of Formation contributor Neil Krishan Aggarwal in his post, 9/11-10: A Decade Lost for Immigrants. Neil recalls how in the days following the attacks, “Hindus and Sikhs insisted that they were not Muslims, Muslims insisted that they were not terrorists, and we all strove to manifest patriotism: American flags outside homes and bumper stickers of support for the NYPD and NYFD on cars.”
I have also heard of many tragic stories like the one This American Life recently revisited about “a Muslim American girl named ‘Chloe,’ who was tormented at school after the students [in her class] had a lesson on 9/11.” The story is very similar to Neil’s experiences in that it describes a scenario of people suddenly being written out of the American identity and being forced to reassert their “Americaness”. These two stories were not isolated incidents and are repeated in various forms over the past ten years. These stories reveal to me a nation defining itself against what it’s not and deciding on an identity based more on symbols than on people.
The roots of this identity struggle, in my opinion, is an ongoing fear of reflection and a fear of sincere contemplation of who and what we are as a nation. When I see a nation approaching the ten-year anniversary of 9/11 with NFL tributes and commemorative ceremonies, two things come to mind: 1) The tributes and ceremonies will be heart-wrenching and stir up a lot of emotion for me and many others and 2) These tributes and ceremonies need to be coupled with a continuing journey towards what it means to be an American.
There will never be one answer to this, and that’s the beauty of our nation. There are 300 million ideas of what it means to be American. We owe it to our neighbors, our ancestors and future citizens, to individually allow ourselves to travel inward. We must not only commemorate the past, but reflect upon it. Our tragedies can be the moments of our greatest growth and deepest searches for identity. To grow from the pain of 9/11, we need to look at our reflections and ask the question, “Who am I?”