When I asked my mother what she remembered from Sept. 11, 2001, she tried not to swallow her words. Her tone changed, and even over the phone, I knew this was a difficult day to remember.
She still lived in Pakistan the day she heard about the attack on America. Her coworker’s terrified whispers the next morning moved her to ask what had just happened. Maybe it was the reality of America not being invincible settling in, or maybe it was the realization that we, too, could be next.
Today marks 18 years since the world stood still as countless Americans lost their lives in a catastrophic tragedy that rattled this country to its core. It's a memory that is etched in the deepest parts of the American people who witnessed the horror itself and lost their loved ones to hatred.
But these feelings and experiences aren’t shared by all Americans, especially those of us who were very young when it happened, or weren’t even born. There is a generational divide in the memory of this tragic day and it shows in the discourse around terrorism and Islamophobia in almost all parts of American life and identity.
Sept. 11, without a doubt, has found a place in the national memory of this country, though we have learned to come to terms with this reality in various ways.
Many people from my own generation were blissfully unaware of what the world looked like before 9/11 and tend to hold the assumption that we’ve always had to go to the airport three hours early to catch a flight, standing in line to undergo the most strenuous of security checks.
In my conversation with Rutgers professor Jo-Leo W. Carney-Waterton, who teaches political science, he said: “I remember that day vividly because I was in my senior year at Georgetown, and there wasn’t a single place on campus where someone wasn’t crying or screaming. I will never forget this day for as long as I live. I’m also not particularly insensitive to the fact that if you don’t have a personal connection to it, it somehow seems hollow. I don’t fault younger people for it but I do fault them for not having a sense of the gravity of the situation, especially as Sept. 11 stands out to me quite possibly as the biggest inflection point of the 21st century. It didn’t just change the United States, it changed the world.”
I couldn’t agree with Carney-Waterton more, because growing up in a post-9/11 world, I couldn’t have imagined life before this. I had heard of Islam sweeping through Black neighborhoods and of Muslim communities living in harmony across America.
But in today’s climate, one of the Christchurch shooting and “go back to your country" rants, I couldn’t picture this camaraderie. The consequences of 9/11 haunt us to this day.
This tragedy not only took lives, but also it destroyed a place of harmony across communities in America and in the world. Many people in my generation are more critical of the U.S. after 9/11 due to the turmoil of the Iraq War and the troublesome climate of U.S. presence in Afghanistan. They use jarring tweets, memes and politically motivated satire to fill the gaps of the shared American experience that they simply didn’t experience themselves.
Sept. 11, 2001 rattled people’s identities and left room for fear to fester. We have seen that fear turn into hatred that shows up in expressions of xenophobia and Islamophobia. It has terrified the Muslim American community to its core and angered many other communities across America.
But how do we live this day in the memory of the great loss that we as a nation suffered?
Honestly, by talking to people like Carney-Waterton, I got to understand the severity and the pain of Sept. 11, 2001, even when I didn’t get to experience it. We must create an open dialogue. We must not give in to our fears and anxieties of being vulnerable.
America suffered a great loss today and for humanity. We must work toward caring for each other as people before we look at what divides us. Eighteen years ago today, the world stood still, but every year we must remember that only the strength of good is greater than any evil that will plague this world.