Our Reaction To Tragedy

by Victor D. Sandiego | Created: Sep 10, 2019

Eighteen years ago, on September 11, 2001, I was at home in my office in Seattle when I heard the news that planes had crashed into the twin towers in New York. At first I was stunned, like most everybody I suppose. After the initial shock wore off and I had a chance to get some of the emerging details, I realized that this event would change everything, that this event marked the end of the  United States as I had known it.

Within months, in the form of the PATRIOT act and the establishment of the Homeland Security Department, new broad and sweeping legislation passed that gave the government powers a nation not in panic would likely have rejected. Many lawmakers, in their hurry to act, didn’t even read what was presented to them. And so the United States, and to a great extent the world, went forth into a new era where fear became the norm, and anything to alleviate it, or even to pretend to alleviate it, became acceptable.

However, my thoughts today are not so much on the massive legislative changes that seized the U.S., but rather the psychological ones. Tragedy comes to the homeland and the hardest hit is rationality.

In eighteen years, there's been very little put forth about why the US was so hated as to provoke the attack. People talked of payback for 9/11 but never seemed to understand that the attackers were also "paying back" for injustices they - rightly or wrongly - perceived had been perpetuated upon them.

I'm not saying the U.S. deserved it. They didn’t. But it's completely intellectually dishonest to say the attackers did it for the hell of it, or because they "hate our freedoms". Unfortunately, very few are willing to look in the mirror and see what culpability the U.S. might have had and what they might do in the future to help unite people and prevent them from going to this level to of extremism.

Instead of reflection, a fever of nationalism, fueled by the desire for revenge, quickly grew from the wreckage.  Those killed became martyrs and those who helped in the aftermath, elevated to the status of heroes. To some extent, all of this is normal, natural, and expected under the circumstances. The responders braved incredible risks and have received, rightly so, the nation’s and the world’s gratitude. That congress delayed so long in recognizing the health benefits they deserved only underscores that lawmakers saw (and continue to see) 9/11 as a political opportunity, not a moral one.

But again I digress. My thoughts today are not so much on cowardly and opportunistic legislators, but rather on what September 11, 2001, a day in the history of the United States, has come to represent.

Over the years, 9/11 has become a sort of nationalistic “never forget” battle cry that carries with it elements of a continued revenge fantasy. It has become a sacred event that must forever be spoken of either in hushed, reverent, or strident tones. Nothing that criticizes our reaction, or fails to treats 9/11 in a sufficiently jingoistic manner is tolerated. Witness the reaction to Representative Ilhan Omar when she referred to 9/11 tangentially while making a larger point. Instead of focusing on what she said and the point she wanted to make, an outrage swelled across the land that she had the audacity to mention 9/11 without using emotionally charged, hyper-patriotic, evil-doer language that has been baked into the country’s collective psyche.

September 11th was a horrible day. Many innocents suffered. But eighteen years later, the country still does not have the moral courage to look at itself and at least wonder, at least question how its own actions may have contributed to the events of that day. It still denies that it must change. It continues on a path of commemoration, which is fitting, but without the introspection required to grow beyond a blameless reflex of righteousness and revenge.

We don’t really have a choice. We’re going to need to overcome our grief and heal ourselves. But the first step is recognition that our first reactionary instincts, while understandable in the moment, don’t serve our wellbeing in the long term.

Many aren’t ready to hear these words, and that’s okay. Each at his own pace. But eventually the time will have to come. I would ask people to work toward the goal of stopping the cycle. Otherwise, it's just going to repeat. Otherwise, we’ll find ourselves with another horrible day, another horrible moment of stunned silence, and another horrible justification to disregard our own propensity for violence.

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