It’s become a common refrain around this time of year: I remember where I was when the towers fell…
In all fairness, it’s hard to forget. When the first plane hit the towers in 2001, there was disbelief, sorrow, and no small amount of fear. When the second plane hit the towers, that fear became more palpable, more urgent. By the time Flight 77 careened into the side of the Pentagon, there was a bubbling sense of panic. I was a freshman in high school, and I’d never seen such abject terror on the faces of adults as I did on that day. Then Flight 93 went down in Pittsburgh, and even in the midst of indescribable uncertainty, one thing was clear: things would never be the same again.
The country came together to mourn. Stories of loved ones lost in the wreckage permeated every moment of daily life. Pictures of victims jumping from the collapsing towers haunted our dreams. The bravery of fallen police officers and firefighters who had rushed to the aid of victims compounded the grief that much more.
And so, every year on September 11th, we pledge we won’t forget. We’ll never forget those who died in the attacks. We’ll never forget those who died trying to rescue them. But there’s another element to all of this that we should never forget — an ugliness borne of the rubble and blood — that has taken far more lives over the past 14 years than the cumulative American victim count in the unspeakable violence: the innocent targets of a pungent Islamophobia.
As we grappled to make sense of the heinous violence, a few facts emerged. The terrorists were Islamic extremists. They were associated with a terrorist organization that called itself Al-Qaeda. A man by the name of Osama bin Laden had claimed responsibility for the attacks. In a country whose citizens had very little understanding of Islam or Middle Eastern politics, these facts resulted in a blanket (mis)understanding.
All Muslims, and those who fit the aesthetics of the stereotype, were the enemy.
We invaded their countries, bombing their citizens with abandon. We identified every male of a certain age as an enemy combatant, caring not for reality. We ignored the Geneva Conventions and whisked away suspected villains to prisons never beholden to the constraints of basic human dignity, justifying torture with the rhetoric of fear and the lies of ignorance. We spent over $4 trillion on a seemingly endless war, hiring private contractors at an exorbitant cost who operated outside the bounds of the U.S. military. We watched as our attacks bred more and more anti-Western sentiment among the populations we intended to “liberate” and their neighbors, further fueling recruitment by extremists and yielding additional terror attacks across the globe.
But it wasn’t just the government that discriminated blindly. Islamophobia and xenophobia that left many in fear for their lives were rampant in the general public. Hate crimes against Muslims soared following the attacks and not just over the course of a few months; the rate reached fever pitch nine years later in 2010. Beatings, Mosque burnings, murders, and more plagued the community. It didn’t really matter if they were Muslim, honestly. Anyone who might be remotely associated with the religion was targeted, as evidenced by the Sikh temple shooting in 2012 and the recent attack on a Sikh man in Darien, Illinois.
This is not intended as a defense of the faiths in question with their own pronounced problems with logic and discrimination. It is, however, a cautionary tale of the human cost of ignorance about those who ascribe to those faiths, most of whom are not extremists and will never be a part of any terrorist plot. It is a reminder of the danger in forgetting this distinction, in ignoring the fact that the kinds of reactions we had after the towers fell are exactly the sort of behavior that gives extremists a platform and appeal. It is a brutal wake-up call to the fact that, though the 9/11 attacks cost us nearly 3,000 lives, our response has killed more than 300,000.
So yes, never forget the lives lost on 9/11. Never forget the courageous people who sacrificed themselves in service of survivors. Never forget the pain and suffering associated with that dark day. But for the love of humanity, never forget the unnecessary price we paid in the aftermath. Because if we can’t remember that, we’re doomed to repeat history.
(Image via Wikipedia)