9/11: never forget our own failures.

When I got out of work on September 11, 2001, my father called me and told me to remember where I was that day and everything else about it: what I thought, who I talked to, etc., because one day my children would ask me.

When I speak to others who were in school that day, they say that classes stopped and every teen/child sat watching a television, like a car wreck, unable to look away.  The images were surely frightening, especially combined with an air made thick with the horror of their teachers.  Our nation’s youth were undoubtedly robbed of their childhood too early that day when they assumed the burden of the coming decade.  They were not given a choice.

Last year Sam Harris wrote a post about 9/11 that said the obvious:

Ten years have now passed since many of us first felt the jolt of history—when the second plane crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center. We knew from that moment that things can go terribly wrong in our world—not because life is unfair, or moral progress impossible, but because we have failed, generation after generation, to abolish the delusions of our ignorant ancestors.

In short, we all wish the perpetrators of the attacks had been more critical.  We wish they had more fiercely questioned their religion or their politics or whatever it was that drove them to end the lives of 3,000 innocent people.  In the wake of their deaths, our compassion for the innocent dead drew all Americans together in a rare and beautiful moment of political unity as we rushed to figure out what to do.

Most of those kids who missed recess to watch the first steps on the path to war are adults now.  How are we managing?  How did we prepare the world for them?

We went to war under false pretense.  We were furious and clamoring for justice, so we acted.  There was a nation that had nothing to do with those attacks, and we used the tragedy on our soil to justify creating a tragedy on theirs.  When people protested, those bent on war used the attacks as an emotional cudgel to silence the rabble demanding evidence for Iraq’s involvement.  The idea of using facts to dissuade the naysayers, if it existed, was lost beneath the din.

The truth of the matter is that we should have been more critical.  Americans should have more fiercely questioned things.  Our failure was not dissimilar from the suicidal monsters who hijacked our planes in that regard.  And those monsters, evil as they were, bear no culpability for over a hundred thousand dead Iraqi civilians who had families and dreams no less dear than those who died in the twin towers.  That responsibility belongs to us.  In our misguided pursuit of a villain we assumed the face of the devil, ironically citing god’s will at the top of our lungs.  This was how we sought to differentiate ourselves from the hijackers.

Back home we became more fractured than ever.  The people believing GOP stands for God’s Own Party were determined to follow our leader as he initiated an

…”arm-twisting offensive” by the United States government to get nations to support it. Although President Bush described nations supporting him as the “coalition of the willing”, the report concluded that it was more accurately described as a “coalition of the coerced.” According to the report, most nations supporting Bush “were recruited through coercion, bullying, and bribery.”

Though once united by our sympathy for the deceased, a new fissure opened across America.  On one side of the spectrum were those willing to question and demand evidence of congress and President Bush.  On the other were people eager to send thousands of the teenagers of 9/11 to seek vengeance for us.  Lust for justice itself is not a bad thing, but paired with untrue beliefs even the best intentions can be twisted into terrors.  Thinking of those kids who missed class to watch the attacks, who donned fatigues and died only a few years after, any honest person must admit the painfully obvious: they died for a lie, just as 3,000 Americans died on 9/11 for a lie.  We mourn their loss of life perhaps, in part, because it keeps us from grieving the fact that ideas based on untruths can make a mockery of our best intentions.  Whether it’s the lie of what god promises or the lie of a government, falsities contaminate the human soul.

We should have healed after the attacks of 9/11.  The opportunity was there.  Instead we took the knife and opened the wound a decade deeper.  If the 9/11 attackers did somehow stumble upon paradise they are no doubt reveling in the extended harm we have done to ourselves this way.  It is easy to assign blame to our attackers, but we become reticent to dispense culpability to the face in the mirror.  It’s not too late to realize we fucked up and to admit that, like all people who commit atrocities in the pursuit of moral good, we should have been more critical.  We should have been better critical thinkers and we failed.  No amount of nationalism can ever change the fact that America, her government, and the majority of her citizens failed and we have never atoned for it.

The fault for catastrophe at the hands of human beings seldom lies with intent, but is almost always the exclusive property of malformed ideas about the universe, such as the belief that anything you do in this life, no matter how grandiose or extreme, can prolong it beyond death.  Yet, to this day, we cling to our own hideously unreasonable beliefs about god and point a decrying finger at theirs, as if the sin if irrationality becomes a virtue in our hands.  But it doesn’t.  That’s just pride talking.

We should be more critical of political leaders.  We should be more critical of religion.  We should be more critical of ideas.  If any lesson should have been learned from 9/11, this is unquestionably it.  Now, more than ever, we should realize the indescribably high value of ideas and we should treat them like they matter.  When others fail to be reasonable, we must be vocal about it, even if they cling to unreason for comfort.  Ideas are our lifeblood.  So many of them are not merely opinions on which we can afford to ‘agree to disagree’, for ideas are the arbiters of our actions, and our actions will always have consequences.  After 9/11 we know that all too well.

Over a decade later we are still bleeding because of poor ideas buried within the bosoms of passionate men.  Passion itself is no crime, in fact it has been the foundation for all of the great goods in the history of humankind.  But unchecked by reason and critical thought it can be the heart of world-changing destruction, as it was on 9/11.  If we are to grow beyond the massacre of 9/11, we need only seek to improve upon the failures of its perpetrators.  Like them, our various religions and the idea of believing things upon the flimsy, immoral basis of faith keeps people from doing so.

We’ve never really confessed our own sins in the aftermath of 9/11.  It may be because a lot of us believe we are forgiven already.  If so, that forgiveness came far too freely.  Redemption comes with a price: we must make ourselves better than we were.  We must learn from our mistakes.  If we are to make amends for our failures, it must be by developing a greater interest in what is true.  And just as it was in the cockpits on 9/11 and as it has been since god first entered the human imagination, religion is an impediment to our instinct of reason.

To all those children of September 11, 2001, I am sorry.  Not only for the planes crashing or for the American lives lost, but for our own failures as a nation and as thinkers.  We should have been more critical.  We should have done better for you.

And I am so, so sorry.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • Ray

    Thank you for this JT.

  • phil zombi

    If 9/11 taught us anything, it is that irrational fear and tribalism often win the day. Honest introspection is difficult enough for individuals but apparently impossible for nations. On this day I wonder what the world would be like if we had taken a different path. But we are on the road that we chose and it is bloody.

    • UsingReason

      People (individuals) are smart, or can be; people (groups) are stupid, pretty much always. It is why leadership is so important, and never been more important that it is today.

  • HP

    You know, there’s been a lot of hand-wringing from the usual suspects about the rise of activist Atheism in the early 21st century. They point to popular authers like Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and Harris; they point to firebrand bloggers like PZ Myers and Ophelia Benson. Some (not enough) point to the tireless work of organizers like you, JT, and Dan Barker, Dave Silverman, etc.

    But I think it’s high time we acknowledged the true progenitors of modern activist Atheism and give credit where it’s due: No two men are more resp0nsible for the New Atheism than Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush.

  • Rory

    This piece sums up why I find myself getting angry on this day every year at the cries to “never forget.” Because platitudes aside, we don’t act much like a nation that remembers what happened, and why, and that has resolved to do better in the future. What happened to America on 9/11 was despicable, but the way we’ve chosen to react has sown the seeds for a hundred new 9/11s. All the freedoms we’ve sacrificed, and the lives we’ve spent, and are we any safer? Have we used our national might to make the world any better? Don’t talk to me about never forgetting when you haven’t even shown the capacity to remember.

    Thanks for the post, JT.

  • Katie T

    Amazingly well said.

  • Amyc

    I think 9/11 was the day I started becoming politically aware. I honestly don’t know if I would be the same person today, if 9/11 hadn’t started me questioning my political beliefs* at such a young age (8th grade for me).

    *by “beliefs” I of course mean the ones that my conservative parents taught me to have

  • John Horstman

    Well said.

  • J. Goard

    I hope your dad also encouraged you to write down what you were doing, because if the memory between your ears is the sole method of preserving the information, it’s very likely to have major inaccuracies by now.

  • Lucy The Veterinary Student

    It was 9/11 which caused me to begin researching other religions in primary school and which eventually led to my being an atheist. I realized for the first time that there were other religions in the world (than catholicism) and that they couldn’t all be right, unless they were all wrong.

  • http://www.believeallthings.com/ Believe All Things

    The tragic events surrounding 9/11 still affect us today. The unjustified, pre-emptive war with its resultant loss of life has had devastating consequences. And American society will likely continue to be affected by these consequences for decades to come. Being critical of ideas also suggests being critical about the truthfulness of those ideas and those who promulgate them.


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