A young American man’s reflection on 9/11
11 Sep 2023
This perspective is colored by the fact that I’m a 22 year old guy from America, so I expect my views to be familiar to some, foreign to most, but in acknowledgement of this anniversary I’d like to reflect on an event that had such a dramatic impact on the lives of so many including my own. As I am starting to write this I am wary of the length this might reach, so I hope the walls of text might be a treat to those who are genuinely interested in these things. If not, it’s good practice for my writing I guess.
There are few events in our lives that meet these specific qualifications: you were alive when it happened, you have no recollection of it happening, and it affected the outcome of your life dramatically. The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, meet these qualifications. Technically I existed at that time, but as a toddler I obviously remember nothing of that day or the weeks that followed. Nor was I cognizant of the ensuing aftermath that led up to both invasions. It was not until I reached nine or ten that my familial upbringing and education directly introduced me to the event and its consequences.
I am not entirely sure how it is or was for those not in America, and the possibility remains that my experiences differ drastically from other Americans too. But starting mid-way through elementary school the conversations on the anniversary of 9/11 were introduced, albeit in ways that would not traumatize the youngin’s. However, by middle school we were watching the documentaries with the news clip of the man jumping from the burning tower. One year was particularly rough for me, I can’t remember why but it seemed the whole school day we talked about the terrorist attacks. The family then proceeded to watch a 2 hour long documentary that specifically focused on the victims and their families. I remember brushing my teeth that night and looking at my face in the mirrors with tears rolling down.
That was a particularly dramatic moment, and these days I don’t see the event covered as extensively in the media or school as it used to, even though it is still an obligatory anniversary to acknowledge in America. Again, I was way too young to remember the event first hand, nor had I known anyone personally that died during 9/11 or even during the wars that followed. The weight is not felt directly, but its impact on me and the rest of the world is immeasurable. The consequences of those attacks have been covered and explained again and again, so I don’t have anything particular to add to that, but the event does leave me in an awkward position.
I grew up in a military family, my father was in the military for more than 30 years and just retired. He was deployed twice, both times for about a year, connected directly to the ensuing military pushback from the United States. I lived on base multiple times, participated in both JROTC and ROTC with the intent to commission, attended many military leadership conferences, and watched Bill O’Reilly as a nighttime routine. I have been exposed to more patriotism than the Europeans could ever imagine.
The event and its aftermath may bring me a small sense of pride, but the feelings of regret, sadness, and embarrassment often dig deeper. The tragedy of the more than two thousands lives lost in the attack is readily apparent. The ensuing casualties, mental and physical, both of the American soldiers and the “others”, is an obvious disaster. Yet there are other sorrows that fester that I do not argue as weighing more in tragedy, but do feel as they are not well voiced by and for people like me, and I say that as someone who feels like I can voice it, not that I deserve to in any particular way.
I will never know what it is like for our country to be at war. Even with the recent final withdrawal from Afghanistan, there is a constant presence of American troops engaging in combat in foreign countries. As long as I have been conscious of such things, there have been identifiable enemies in my narratives. I have been repeatedly reminded by the fact that there are people out there that would like us dead and destroyed, and what we need to do to prevent that from happening. This may only be the result of a relatively conservative and military upbringing, but vigilance is virtue, we are taught that we are hated and that people will act on it. We know that thousands of men died or are forever scarred so that we could have the freedom and luxuries we afford now. We know of the droves of folks who immediately signed up to pay the terrorists back for the terrible injustice they had committed, to fight their hatred for our way of life.
Now come to the knowledge that the choices that America and its allies made in 9/11’s aftermath were at the minimum, morally questionable. I was exposed to such information and questions in middle school both in education and family conversations, I don’t know when other Americans encountered those stories for the first time. But yeah, regardless of my upbringing the toll of what we did and why is undeniable to me. Avoiding the essay I would write analyzing the reasons for the invasions and the atrocities that the US itself committed, I will say that there were many terrible sins committed by our side that bring me shame. And yes, in my military training we spent many hours covering these atrocities, our military admits to at least some of them. This, compounded with the mess of a withdrawal and the uproar from the military community, tints my feelings towards this country, my desire to join the military, and of this anniversary.
The sense of duty instilled in me as a child, directly, indirectly, and due to my own personality, is unshakeable. I don’t tear up when something bad happens to me or someone I care for, yet I cry to those soldiers returning home/fallen soldier videos. I never felt so confident in who I was compared to when I wore my OCPs (standard operational uniforms for the Army). Yet I have spent an equal amount of timing decrying America’s reaction to 9/11 in both homework and conversation. I hate that we went to war at all. Actual servicemembers and veterans have their own special level of hatred for the war that I certainly cannot reach.
I do have love for America. Patriotism might be viewed as ignorance or stupidity to many, but I am not bothering with that conversation at the moment. I also am proud of the fact that America is still, maybe arguably, the most powerful nation in the world, as it has been my whole lifetime. However, it takes us years to kill one guy. Osama Bin Laden wanted to drain us, and we dropped trillions on a war that ended up accomplishing very little besides creating many dead Americans and many, many more Afghans and Iraqis. All this after we already lost another major war against insurgency, Vietnam, like we had no time to learn. The amount that the powerful, both individual and corporate, have benefitted from the wars is not lost on me. The increasingly problematic actions of our intelligence agencies are not lost on me either.
I don’t know where I am. I worry about things far beyond the scope of my control. Where does America go from here? How long can we stay as the most powerful nation in the world, do we really want to, what is the cost financially, mentally, morally? If we lose the position of influence we have, which nation takes its place and can we accept that?
More explicitly tied to 9/11 and its aftermath, that was an era in which America was more united than it had ever been in decades, and we have never reached something close to that since. Yes, there were protests, but the majority of people agreed to go to war. I was not conscious of the immediate aftermath but the pure emotion and desire for revenge is still palpable in America to this day. Yet that unity agreed to actions terrible for both us and others. That fact greatly sours my trust at all levels of power, and what it takes to address problems in our world, one that many view as increasingly divided. How do you get people to ignore their differences without ignoring the consequences? Is it possible to do so in such moralistic rallies?
The whole nature of justice, of what is deserved and what is not burns in my brain as well, especially during this anniversary. Can you match the punishment of a crime in severity without matching its great injustice by your own acts? The effects of sin are not erased by committing others against those of whom committed it. One might say to cut the other man’s feet off for him doing the same to you leaves us both unable to stand. It is clear to me at least that both wars, regardless of their specific connection to 9/11 itself, neither wiped out terrorism, bettered the lives of those in the Middle East and Central Asia, or brought a sense of resolution to the Americas. So great, we had a community more united than ever before motivated by the desire of justice, and what have we gotten?
The academic, philosophical, and whatever category you may imagine as relevant, extend far beyond what I have mentioned, nor does it come close to the extent that I, someone with a bunch of personal issues in my own life, ruminate in my head about instead. To the sum of the solutions that have been offered by many, I have faith in little to none of them. Beyond the fact that I cannot imagine a single reality where the American populace would have tolerated anything less than war, I see no other nation that reaches America’s power committing levels of atrocity no less than the United States. Nor have I witnessed any “common sense” policy, academically proven, intellectually argued, government mandated, etc. that answers this society’s issue without creating an equal or greater amount of suffering in its stead. Which brings me, and I assume many other young Americans, to this sense of nihilism.
I make very dedicated attempts to fight that sense, to at least shift towards absurdism. In any case, skepticism of the world, its peoples, its truth, burrows further and further into my mind and soul on this day as many others. And no, I find that the argument that the world is just terrible and so are people to be as equally problematic as the logic that drove us to war in the first place. So I don’t know where this leads me. I don’t need to live the life of an activist or a conspiracy theorist to hold such a level of distrust, and I like to think of myself as an optimistic person who gives people the benefit of the doubt. Nevertheless, I am trying to not let these questions bring me to hate. I don’t want to react to the injustices of a reaction with another unjust reaction.
So where does that put me? Where does that put those in a similar position to me? I sit at my desk at 0400 now and contemplate the fate of my perspectives, whilst hundreds of thousands lie below ground and families reel from grief to this day. I find there to be a sense of self-pity, melodrama, self-righteousness and indulgent pessimism in my thoughts, but that is not my intent. I can’t even say I am here to look for answers, though comments are welcome. I am not rushing to solve the world, and I am not rushing to judge or condemn anyone in particular. Whether warranted or not, I am forever wary of those who are passionate in their solutions, and my experiences only reinforce that sentiment. So yeah, 9/11 and its aftermath were tragedies, I don’t know where that leaves us, I have yet to trust any offered solution, etc. I hope that anyone affected by 9/11 and its aftermath may feel a greater sense of peace and relief. I hope we can find a better way.