One Year Later, What Have We Learned?

This month, we as a nation are collectively remembering the horrific events of 9-11. I am forced to look back at the event in light of a year of not only tremendous economic loss to us a nation, but also of tremendous human loss to us as a people. To those of us who have lost loved ones, this is ostensibly one of the longest and most painful years of our lives. And, our lives are now acutely demarcated with the headings of “before 9-11″ and “after 9-11″.

Before 9-11, like so many Americans, I could have never fathomed the U.S. being attacked with such an unimaginable magnitude and force by terrorists at home. And even more incredible to me was that the World Trade Center towers, the symbol of American capitalism, would not only fall to their demise, but their fall would also take a nation’s economy with them.

Before 9-11, it seemed not only impossible but also incredulous to think that I would one day wake up and not be acutely reminded of my multiple identities — African American and lesbian — that I both have to navigate and negotiate in and through the world. Because to assume such a thing I would have to ask myself, “What event in U.S. history would bring about such a day?”

And before 9-11, I would have never believed that a world religion such as Islam — whose relationship to Judaism and Christianity shares the same biblical patriarch, Abraham, as the father of their faiths — would be damned and demonized as a supporter of terrorism.

Before 9-11, it seemed not only impossible but also incredulous to think that I would one day wake up and not be acutely reminded of my multiple identities — African American and lesbian — that I both have to navigate and negotiate in and through the world.

However, it is the time between “before 9-11″ and “after 9-11″ that for some people either opened us up to each other or closed us off not only to one another but also from the world.

The old cliche “What a difference a day makes” holds true because on 9-11 people came together across their racial, ethic, religious, gender and sexual identity, and class differences. There was a collective effort to help each other either to escape the falling ruins of a towering inferno or to help thwart a terrorist plot aimed at decimating the White House.

On 9-11, the people in the throes of terrorist attacks understood that each of their lives hung in a precarious balance of life and death. As Newsweek reported, “Those who lived weren’t the smartest, or the fittest, or best prepared, [or] more deserving of life than the firefighters who passed them on the stairs going up. The key to survival wasn’t even as simple as knowing in which direction the street lay.”

However, those lucky enough to make it understood that their desire to see another day was contingent upon them working across their differences together, if not ignoring them, because doing so was intrinsically tied to their personal freedom as individuals and their collective freedom as a nation under attack.

On 9-11, as I watched from my television set people helping each other and people sharing their remarkable stories of rescuing and being rescued, I was reminded of the Latin phrase found on our U.S. currency, E pluribus unum — out of many, one. On 9-11, in the throes of a horrific attack of unimaginable magnitude and force, united we stood as a nation. We stood as an “unified plurality,” where I believe on that day we saw the image of the sacred in ourselves, the image of the sacred as ourselves, and the image of the sacred in each other. The sanctity of all life was valued.

We stood as an “unified plurality,” where I believe on that day we saw the image of the sacred in ourselves, the image of the sacred as ourselves, and the image of the sacred in each other. The sanctity of all life was valued.

After 9-11, however, life to me shifted back to things as “normal,” albeit, some would say, dangerous proportions. I asked a friend what her thoughts were concerning the anniversary of 9-11. Doris Ferrer Roach, a lesbian who lived in Boston’s Brighton neighborhood, told me, “We have not learned enough and we have stayed in victim mode, instead of examining the world events that lead to such an extreme act of violence that pieced the psyche of this country.”

And victim mode is what we are in, but it is guised as securing our national borders and protecting the rest of the world from terrorism by example.

As a wounded country we have become approvingly racist and xenophobic, where “flying while Arab” these days is as dangerous in this country as “driving while Black” has always been. “Everywhere I go these days the FBI follows me. I am not a member of al-Qaeda, nor am I a member of the Taliban. . . I am a Muslim, I am an American. American and Muslim at the same time. He prays and eats hamburgers,” Mr. Azhar M. Usman, a 26 year-old Arab-American attorney and stand-up comedian, told The New York Times.

As a wounded country that has been disabused of its notion as an indomitable and impenetrable force in the world, 9-11 brought us to our knees. However, while on our knees I would think as a nation we would reflect introspectively on how we would humbly rise up from the ashes, understanding our transgressions that got us there. Instead, we arrogantly decided, under the guise of patriotism, that war and not dialogue seems to be the better solution to peace. But if truth be told, peace, has never been so much our ultimate objective as maintaining and supporting U.S. interests at home and abroad, and by any means necessary.

In October 2001, President Bush said, “We will enforce the doctrine that says if you harbor a terrorist, you‚re a terrorist. If you feed a terrorist, if you fund a terrorist, you’re a terrorist.” However, as a country the U.S. has never been big on self-reflection and how our actions of aggression and terrorism impact on other countries.

9-11 brought us to our knees. However, while on our knees I would think as a nation we would reflect introspectively on how we would humbly rise up from the ashes, understanding our transgressions that got us there.

For example, in the 1980′s the CIA recruited, armed and trained “freedom fighters” — Islamic extremists — from over 30 Islamic countries to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. In the 1990′s, Saudis felt their home soil, one of the holiest sites of Islam, was both desecrated and invaded by Americans when the U.S. set up permanent military bases there without their permission. Now, in the 2000′s the U.S. is fighting against many of the Islamic extremists they trained, and many countries with anti-American sentiments feel that the U.S. is reaping what it sowed.

And while our lauded gay heroes — Father Mychal Judge, a firefighter and Franciscan priest who died while administering last rites, and Mark Bingham, one of the victims of United Airlines Flight 93 who helped thwart the terrorist plot — will be remembered, as a wounded country we are still as virulently homophobic as ever. Even after heroic deeds by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, we are still treated like pariahs in this country.

For example, New York State issued an executive order permitting same-sex surviving partners of 9-11 victims eligible to receive monies from the states Crime Victims Board. However, with same-sex unions illegal in the state, many same-sex surviving partners were denied death certificates and death benefits as well as being denied as the beneficiaries of their lovers’ estates. And while the Red Cross and the United Way thoughtfully provided assistance to same-sex surviving partners, this once in a lifetime protection does not protect the majority of ordinary lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender couples whose partners die of natural causes or tragic accidents outside of 9-11.

Why all of this fragmentation among us after a life-changing event that tied us all to each other? What is the cost of our fragmentation as we attempt to rise collectively from the ashes of nearly 3,000 killed?

In looking back at 9-11 on this one-year anniversary, I am reminded of Psalm 38:5, “My wounds stink and are corrupt because of my foolishness,” with which my childhood pastor would occasionally chide our congregation for licking its wounds. And in times when I have licked my own wounds it has always taught me that not only do aggravate the wounds, but I am letting the wounds fester instead of treating them. And, therefore, the healing process can never begin.

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