On this day, fourteen years ago, almost 3,000 American men and women perished in the worst act of terrorism against any civilian population in world history. It is truly a day none of us will ever forget — like how our parents remembered where they were and what they were doing when they heard of President Kennedy’s assassination, we will always remember where we were and what we were doing on September 11, 2001. I remember hearing that they thought it was a small plane, then that it was a much bigger plane, then that there were two really big planes. I remember classmates crying because their fathers or mothers or aunts or uncles or cousins or siblings worked in Manhattan and they didn’t know if their loved ones were okay. Many were; some weren’t. I remember being pulled out of school by my mother, and I remember watching the Towers fall, and the Pentagon smoldering, on live television — every channel, over and over and over again. But most of all, I remember myself thinking, at eleven years old, that our world would never be the same again. I wasn’t wrong.
In the immediate aftermath of September 11, we all saw our neighbors, friends, and complete strangers come together, arm in arm, as one unified people — as Americans — to show the world that we would not falter, we would not back down…we would not let fear control us. I had never been so proud to be an American.
And yet…in the fourteen years since those 2,996 Americans had their lives cut short, that overwhelming feeling of patriotism has faded, and it has been replaced with a mess of emotions. I feel sadness for those who continue to suffer unimaginable loss. I feel anger towards the actors that caused such pain.
But I also feel frustration — frustration that, as a people, we have given in to fear and have acquiesced so much of what makes us Americans in order to placate ourselves with the illusion of security. I feel rage because we, as a people, are more divided than ever — ideologically, socially, economically, intellectually.
Most of all, though, I feel despair, because, while the United States has never faltered in being the strongest economy by GDP, the strongest political power, and the most powerful military power in the world…we have lost the war for the collective mind of America, and the sense of who we are and who we can be. We are more divided than in any other time in history. Our leaders, our government, and our media engage in the peddling of fear to keep many of us distracted long enough to forget or ignore that the middle class that built America in the 20th century is nearly extinct, that our government has committed atrocious human rights violations against vulnerable civilians in the Middle East, and that a significant chunk of the American population, in 2015, still believes that women, blacks, Hispanics, and LBGT individuals are second-class citizens. We have, as a collective, willingly given up significant rights — rights that are highly unlikely to ever be given back — in the name of national security. We have allowed racist, xenophobic, and anti-intellectual minorities to take control of the nation’s megaphones and airwaves and dominate the national discussion. Almost half of Republicans still believe our own President is a Muslim, even in the face of all evidence to the contrary — and 34% of Republicans (about 20% of all Americans) still believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that our President is not a U.S. citizen. Half of all Americans think man-made climate change is a bald-faced lie, despite the mountain of data that confirms the phenomenon. We have, as we are wont to do when we are scared, buried our heads in our Bibles and started a pissing contest amongst ourselves as to who is more American, who is the bigger patriot, who can be more Star-Spangled Awesome than everybody else — while ignoring the real issues that hamper our own internal progress as a people.
This is not who we are. This is not who we were ever meant to be. This country was founded on hope — hope for better lives, hope for opportunity, and hope for a stronger tomorrow for all.
We have strayed so far from the unified American people we once were, and from what we have always purported ourselves to be, in so many ways — and we can pin it all on our fear. We are, as a people and as a country, seriously ill, and we have made no serious attempt to get better in the last fourteen years. In this respect, I truly despair in the thought that, in this small, but significant, way, the terrorists won.
And so I despair…but I also still hold a glimmer of hope — after all, I am an American, and we Americans are nothing if not annoyingly resilient and optimistic — that we can be better. We have to be better. I went into public service because I love this country, despite its faults and divisions and fissures and weaknesses. I want to make America better. I want to make us better. I want us to strive to better ourselves, to be understanding of one another, to put down our swords and shields and embrace what we have in common and seek compromise and understanding on things we can all agree upon in order to keep us forever moving forward, as we have always done. I want us to rid ourselves of our xenophobia, our fear, our paranoia, our anti-intellectualism — these debilitating viruses that have made us lethargic and apathetic and hateful. I want us to strive to the ideal of “America” about which poems have been spoken, and about which books have been penned, but which we never seem to achieve.
We can heal our collective illness and be the Americans we want — we need — to be.
For years, I have dreaded September 11 and the memories it conjures up for us all, because what is worth remembering brings back so much pain and sorrow to us all. I dread it even more now because I see how far we have strayed from what it means to be an American.
I am tired of dreading this day. I do not want to dread this day. I want us to ensure that, every September 11th from now until our last days, we can look back and remember our fallen brothers and sisters and say, with confidence, that we have not let their deaths be in vain.
So, let us remember those who left us fourteen years ago today — but let us remember them with actions, not words. Let us move forward together, as one unified people, and work to make America the best it can be, in their memory, and on behalf of those who will come after us. We owe them that, at least.