Ten years ago today, my first wife and I were in the process of moving into our new unfurnished student apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We had rented a moving truck and driven over to the house of a friend, who had generously offered us an old piece of furniture. My wife rang the bell and we waited a minute or two. Then my friend came running down the stairs, slightly flustered and dishevelled. “I’m sorry I took so long,” she said, panting a little. “I was watching the news.”
“The… news?” We looked at each other.
“Oh my God, you haven’t heard! Two planes crashed into the World Trade Center. It’s collapsed.”
“Two planes!” I said. “Then it must have been deliberate.”
“Yeah, they think it’s Osama bin Laden.”
“Huh,” I said. “Wow.” I paused for a few seconds, saying “Wow” and “Huh” a few more times. Then I shrugged my shoulders and said “Well, let’s get back to moving.”
This was not, I would soon learn, the way most Americans reacted to the same news.
To me, a terrorist attack, like a hurricane or a famine, was a sad event that needed to be dealt with appropriately; it just wasn’t earth-shaking. In the previous decade alone, there had already been a successful international terrorist attack against the US in the African embassy bombings. There had already been an international terrorist attack on American soil when bin Laden had previously tried to bomb the World Trade Center. And there had already been a successful terrorist attack on American soil in Oklahoma City. Why then was it such a big surprise when there was a successful international terrorist attack on American soil? These things happen. Of course they are terrible tragedies, and we should try our best to stop them, but I didn’t see why such an event would be an earth-shattering surprise.
But the seemingly unanimous reaction across the US media, and even people we spoke to, was: this is the day that everything changed. And everything did indeed change – but because of people’s reactions to the event, more than the event itself. The media spoke of nothing else. The economy plunged into recession from the disruption of confidence. Suddenly 90% of the American population declared its approval for the malicious and ignorant George W. Bush. And brown-skinned foreigners were no longer welcome. According to FBI data, there was a 1600-percent spike in hate crimes against people perceived to be Muslim – whether or not they were. Balbir Singh Sodhi was murdered for being a Sikh and therefore looking like a Muslim. These things I saw on the news were confirmed in a smaller way by my personal experience. That week I called a taxi on the phone, waited a few minutes, and saw a cab from the company I called drive up to me on the street. As soon as the driver saw my brown-skinned body waiting for him, he kept going past me quickly, pulled into a parking lot, turned around and sped off the other way. It was one of the very few incidents in my lucky and privileged life where I have unambiguously felt myself to be a victim of racism.
This was the world of 9/12 – the darkest, lowest ebb to which American political culture has sunk in my living memory. What stung considerably worse was the way many Americans in the media would repeatedly describe it all as their country’s finest hour, the time to be held out for emulation. That claim still gets made now – and while one might expect that kind of behaviour from Glenn Beck, today one can hear no less than Barack Obama recalling a supposed spirit of generosity, compassion and unity at the time. If there was indeed an outpouring of generosity and compassion in 2001, I didn’t experience it. A spirit of unity was there indeed – in that nearly the whole country lining up to endorse the man who brought us the Iraq war, government-sanctioned torture, free environmental destruction and frivolous tax breaks for millionaires. It was this context that gave rise to the ’00s, the decade of powerlessness, when the country I lived in repeatedly expressed its confidence in the man I most hated.
But for that very reason, the ’00s were also a time for deep reflection for me – the time in which I became anti-political, when I realized the way politics so easily leads to a hatred that scars one’s heart, with the help of Śāntideva and a Goenka retreat. And while I am afraid that some of the mental scars I felt living in that time will not heal, I hope that some of them have.
English-speaking North Americans typically have a hard time understanding the ethnic conflicts that fill so many places in the rest of the world. It’s difficult for us to see why Serbs and Croats, say, would start slaughtering each other after long years of relative peace – sometimes even killing each other over events that happened hundreds of years ago. But it seems to me that in those days following September 2001, many Americans began acting in a very similar way. For all around in those days, even in liberal Cambridge, one could spot bumper stickers and T-shirts and posters speaking that most chilling of slogans: “9/11/01 – NEVER FORGET.”
It is a good thing to look at a tragic or horrific event and say “never again,” work to prevent similar events from happening in the future. But “never forget?” That is surely what Hutus told each other about Tutsis, the credo of the Irish Protestants and Catholics who continued fighting the Troubles. Remember the terrible things that they have done to us. Hold that horrible memory in your heart, so that you can preserve your hatred. Even if the war ends in the outside world, you must keep fighting it in your heart. Remember, and hate.
And yet. Ten years later, it is remarkable just how little of “9/11” remains in American public consciousness, considering how ten years ago people seemed to speak of nothing else. The agenda of the “Tea Party” seems about as bad to me now as Bush’s did then, but that agenda has nothing whatever to do with terrorism; and the other side is fighting back. Even the media discussion of this major anniversary has so far been relatively restrained. The main visible legacy of the attacks is the ever-more-elaborate security ordeal one now faces to board an airplane; and while one might well debate how necessary or useful that procedure is, it at least has the stated purpose of preventing future attacks, not of preserving the memory of the past one.
Americans, in short, have started to forget. And it’s a wonderful thing. There’s a certain pragmatism that is characteristically American: let’s get on with business, let’s just get things done. That spirit seemed to be suspended in 2001, when everything ground to a halt – in stark contrast to the London bombings, where Brits carried on with business as usual. But it’s back. 9/12, at long last, is over.
Mostly, anyway. I know the memory of that era still lives on in my spirit – I’m still easily angered when I think about what the United States became in the early ’00s. The irony of writing a commemorative post to praise forgetting is not lost on me. But I hope that this post serves as something of a spiritual exercise, a sort of reminding, for me and for others who may have reacted to the ’00s USA in something like the way I did. I find it admirable that Americans have mostly left behind attempts to keep alive their memories of 9/11’s horrors. I want to try to do the same with my own memory of 9/12.