Yesterday marked 22 years since the attacks of 9/11. The world, my world, changed irrevocably because of that day.
But I want to talk about September 12, 2001, because today I wake up to memes and posts shared about how horrific 9/11 was, but how inspiring and hopeful 9/12 was. The general idea is that 9/11 was an attempt to shatter the US way of life, to tear through the fabric of our nation but 9/12 was the day we showed our attackers that no hijackings, no explosions, or loss of life would terrorize us into capitulation. “September 12 was when we came together as Americans.”
This post isn’t to shame those folks or those sentiments, they’re hopeful and comforting, and they’re not entirely false.
Except they are not entirely true either.The whole truth doesn’t fit neatly into a country song or shareable meme.
The truth is more nuanced than that. There certainly is truth in the community many of us felt and built on September 12 and the days and years after. But in the building and rebuilding, we lost a bit of ourselves.
Because we didn’t ALL come together, in fact many of us tribalized against our very neighbors.
Hate crimes against Muslim Americans spiked in the days and weeks following 9/11. They’ve never come back down. Lawful residents and visitors to the US had to register in a complicated and convoluted government database called NSEERS. Years after the attack, then President Trump issued a blanket “Muslim Ban.”
That’s not national identity or togetherness. It’s not community, it’s something twisted and extreme, something decidedly un-American.
I’m a big proponent of community. I ran across the country in, and with, support of community. But here’s the hard, and very sad fact about the community.
We can take it too far.
We can turn a community into a clique, a tribe, even a cult. And in doing so we focus less about what connects us to others and more about what disconnects us. Our communities are built on the principle of exclusiveness, rather than inclusiveness. We build “us” vs “them.”
Trauma amplifies this ill-effect. In his fantastic book, The Body Keeps the Score, Dr Bessel van der Kolk writes about his work with military veterans haunted by the trauma of war. He writes that during initial sessions, veterans are hesitant to share their trauma with non-veterans like himself or even other vets who may not “get it.” He writes about how on at least two occasions military support groups presented him with some token of military appreciation – a unit coin or patch or in one case a full captain’s uniform. While Van Der understood these tokens as signs of respect and connection he also knew they were also problematic as they were signs that he could only be accepted if he was “one of them.”
I grew up in one of those “take care of our own” communities. And I’m better for it. But as I left the community, and was invited into others, I began to see how my inclusive and supportive community was just that, for me, but certainly not for others. Looking back, even those kids from other towns were labeled “outsiders,” and my allegiance was expected to my immediate neighbors, regardless of the situation. Over time, in many ways, I became labeled as one of those “outsiders,” and while it broke my heart, I’m hardly the only one to be excommunicated, ostracized from a place I call home.
Even as I write this, I cringe at knowing that many, a few of whom I love, will label it one more reason why I “hate American” when the truth can’t be further.I love my nation. I’ve spent the majority of my adult life in its service. I have hope for this nation, a deep relentless hope for our future. I weep for our mistakes as we all weep for the mistakes of those we love the most.
It was in service of that nation that I’ve been lucky to meet and work alongside those who were ultimately excluded on 9/12. Those who mourned for the attack on their nation and felt an equal bit of terror from the inside, a fear of their neighbors and their government. Who received a clear message from a government of the people that said “you now longer belong, not really you aren’t one of us and you could be one of them.”
After 9/11 we became so defined by our collective, it stifled any dissenting voices. Anyone who spoke out against the war was considered anti-American. They were reminded of the horrors of 9/11 , those reminders framing the conversation so “with us or against us.” So often we find that the “stronger” the bond, the harder it is to show any display of diversity or difference. Even when the war in Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. We matched tragedy, death, and pain with more tragedy, death, and pain – and not just on our “enemies,” but on ourselves and innocent civilians – and we did so without reflection under a banner of patriotism.
Our nation trauma-bonded in a way after 9/11, and it wasn’t healthy for anyone.
We lept to action, because that gave us agency. It made us feel like we were in control of our own trauma. At a basic level, this agency can be an asset in recovering. But so many of us threw our energy at achieving some feeling of justice or revenge, rather than healing, together, and we were weakened by that.
Because that action was visceral, without careful examination, reflection, or true healing.
Healing is an active process that requires not only understanding the nuances of a traumatic event, but only how that event interacts with your brain, body, and community. Healing only comes with reflection. It takes vulnerability, and that’s not something the US is great at, collectively or individually.
We’re a tough culture, at least in my community, “rugged individualists.” But I’ve long argued that tough isn’t enough. Besides, what’s more difficult, more challenging, requires more strength and will than self-reflection? If one can thoroughly examine themselves, take an honest assessment of themselves, and come out unbroken on the other side, that’s toughness.
And that’s the rub here. We are not responsible for the trauma in our lives. But we are responsible for how we react to it. How we let it shape ups, change us, and make no mistake – all trauma changes us. We can grow from it, with newfound, newly developed, strength, unrelenting grit, and unshakeable hope. Or we can crumble. We can run to the worse angels of our nature, cling to the tribe that offers a facade of safety in exchange for healing, progress, and true belonging.
On this September 11, I remembered and honored the trauma and pain inflicted on our nation. But today, on Sept 12, I double down on my commitment to focus equally intensely on our response, to ensure that when I think about healing, about defeating terrorism and securing a nation, I know that means defeating the terror we spread amongst ourselves, and the fear based choices that result.
Every September 11 we mourn, but every September 12 we choose.