I don't have any political agenda in writing this. I just felt like it was important for me to remember as much as I could...
Twenty years ago I was thirteen years old and attending junior high. I got ready for school that morning as I normally did. Before heading out the door, I remember going to my parents room, either to say goodbye or to wait for Mom to take me to school, I don't remember. But I do remember that the TV was on, the morning news was playing, and there was a picture of the Twin Towers, one of which had been hit by a plane. I didn't know anything about the World Trade Center before that day. And like many others, at the time I assumed it was simply a terrible accident. Beyond that, I didn't think about it much more and went to school as usual. It was in the middle of one of my classes that an announcement was made: the second tower had been hit as well. Even worse, we now knew that it was not an accident. The United States had been attacked.
I don't remember much else about that day, except for a few more scattered details from school. I remember standing in line for lunch and chatting with friends about what had happened, and wondering whether this was the beginning of World War III. I remember that our U.S. History class combined with another class that day, and instead of our regular lesson, we watched the news that whole period, which reported about the death and damage caused by the attacks. I remember seeing a video of one of the towers collapsing while a news reporter was covering the event on site. I remember seeing another video on the news of some in another country, both adults and children, who were waving their national flag and celebrating the attacks. I remember sitting near another kid who was upset by this and started gesturing towards the TV screen like he was shooting a rifle at the ones who were celebrating.
I remember mourning with everyone else those killed in the attack, as well as the many heroic first responders who gave their own lives to try and help them.
I remember that in the days that followed, everyone seemed to be extra patriotic. The U.S. flag was flying everywhere you looked. I remember buying a pin of the flag to wear on my shirt collar. I remember many prayers and memorials. I remember learning the names Al-Qaeda, Taliban, and Osama bin Laden and hearing frequent mention of Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, or simply, "the Middle East". I remember learning that U.S. troops were heading to the Middle East.
I remember the following year the Winter Olympic Games came to Salt Lake City, and there were plans to display a damaged U.S. flag that was found amid the wreckage of the Twin Towers during the opening ceremonies. I remember some arguing that it shouldn't be displayed, because the attack was "America's problem", and the Olympics were supposed to be about the world, not just the U.S. But I remember ultimately it was decided to display the flag anyway, because terrorism is a global problem, not just an America problem. I remember that feeling like a rare moment of international solidarity.
Months passed. I remember that people started to become more flippant about the attacks. I heard and saw countless jokes, photoshopped images (this was before "memes" were common), and short videos mocking Osama bin Ladin, Saddam Hussein, and those who supported or fought for them, while at the same time threatening them with violence. I remember that for a while, it seemed like every villain in every new
thriller TV show was Middle Eastern. I remember not recognizing this
phenomena until it was pointed out to me, and then seeing it everywhere.
I remember, not just thinking, but knowing that that's unfair. I
remember one such show going out of their way to point out that there
are good Muslims too, and not recognizing at the time that falls far short of addressing hatred and prejudice.
I remember that eventually some people in the United States began criticizing the war effort in the Middle East. I remember reading an article about Iraqi prisoners that had been abused by U.S. troops. I remember backlash from those who supported the war effort. I remember them implying, if not explicitly saying, that those prisoners deserved to be mistreated, or that it simply didn't matter. I remember thinking that it did matter though. Just because they were fighting against us didn't mean we should condone them being abused by our own troops. Weren't we better than that? Didn't the concepts of forgiveness and loving our enemies apply to them just as much as anyone?
I remember my dad, who served in the Air Force Reserves, being activated to serve in Iraq. I remember feeling reassured by the fact that his duties didn't involve any actual fighting, and assuming that he would be relatively safe as a result. I remember worrying about him anyway, and praying for him often. I remember having a summer job while Dad was gone, and asking for time off for when he would be back for a short visit, but not knowing the exact date at the time. I remember being told I could have the day off, whenever it happened to be, but then being told I didn't give them enough notice when I did learn the exact date. I remember being treated with indifference when I reminded them that the reason I was requesting the day off was to see my Dad who was on active duty. I remember persisting and finally getting the day off, but losing a lot of respect for the company as a result of the experience.
I remember being on the high school swim team, and getting into an argument about the war with another member of the team who's dad was also in Iraq, and who blamed President Bush for it. I remember joining a group of other students at the school whose parents were on active duty and having special lunches and activities with them. I remember seeing a large sticker of the Air Force logo stuck to the inside of one of the urinals in the high school restroom. I remember trying to peel it off with my bare hands, but being unable to lift up the edge. I remember a friend of mine drawing a picture of a soldier in front of a tattered U.S. flag with the caption, "Freedom isn't free" in honor of our troops, including my dad.
I remember the day Dad finally finished his service and came home, and that it coincided with one of our swim meets. I remember warming up in the pool, and then looking up to see Dad sitting with my mom, getting out of the pool, and running up to him and throwing my arms around him, even though I was still wet. I remember him explaining to us days later that there were still dangers in the place where he stayed, but that he didn't tell us about them at the time in order to not worry us.
I remember political division. Obviously our nation had experienced division before. But this was one of my earliest memories of it. I remember the war in Iraq and Afghanistan was one of the biggest issues discussed during the months leading up to the 2004 election. I remember understanding why anyone would want us to bring our troops home, but not understanding how it made any sense to set a specific date by which to withdraw all of our troops, and making such a date publicly known, including to our enemies. I remember there being a lot of anger over President George W. Bush being reelected. I remember feeling, for the first time, that everyone was divided into two camps and that there was no room for compromise or understanding.
More time passed. I graduated from high school, completed a course on computer animation, got accepted to BYU, and entered the MTC to train for my mission to Neuquén, Argentina. I remember hearing news while in the MTC about Saddam Hussein's trial and execution. I remember thinking that was a sign that things were "settling down" in the region. I remember traveling to Argentina to preach the Gospel, but feeling frustrated by all those who were more interested in discussing politics once they saw the very obvious fact that I was from the U.S. I remember having dinner with members of the Church who would go out of their way to bring up the subject of the war and to criticize President Bush. I remember being yelled at by strangers who accused me of being a "spy for Bush". I remember other strangers asking if I came to Argentina to escape from our President who "loves dropping bombs on people". I remember one local Church leader pulling me aside and telling me he thinks Bush is a good man, but joking that he "can't say that around here, or they'll kill me!"
I remember that for years after my mission, both during and after my time at BYU, it seemed like everyone wanted the U.S. to get out of the Middle East, but nobody had any good ideas for how to do it. By now, the events on 9/11 were a distant memory, to the point that virtually nobody was using it as justification for any military action. I remember hearing about the emergence of a group called ISIS or ISIL or the Islamic State, as well as plenty of people arguing over which was the "correct" term to call them. I remember hearing people blame President Obama for their rise in power, and I remember it feeling as over-simplistic as the other side blaming President Bush before. I remember wondering if anything would ever seem that simple to me again.
I remember what feels like countless 9/11's passing, year after year, the memory of what had happened still there, but the profound significance of that day never being quite enough to distract from other day-to-day concerns like school, dating, marriage, working, and raising a family.
I remember less than a year ago when President Biden promised he would end the war. I remember wondering what that would look like and being cautiously hopeful that maybe he could pull it off, bring our troops home from Afghanistan, and that there could be some semblance of stability in the region. I remember feeling not just disappointed, but sick to my stomach as I heard about the Afghani government collapsing, almost the instant our troops left. I remember feeling disgusted with Biden for claiming to accept responsibility, while pointing out repeatedly that none of it was his fault. I remember him saying we couldn't stay and fight for a nation that wouldn't even fight for themselves, and I remember feeling like it was an overt instance of victim-blaming, only applied on a national scale. I remember hearing many promises that we would evacuate our troops, U.S. citizens, those Afghani's who aided us during the war, and others fleeing Taliban oppression, and then hearing numerous first-hand accounts of our Afghani allies trying to flee the country, only to be turned away at the airport.
I remember hearing about the August 31 deadline to have all of our troops out of Afghanistan. I remember hearing from multiple sources on the right and the left that were skeptical that we'd be able to get everybody out by then. I remember President Biden implying that his hands were tied, and that we had to stick to the deadline because of a deal made by former President Trump and demands made by the Taliban. I remember wondering since when does the President hesitate to undo something the previous administration has done, much less take orders from the Taliban. I remember writing letters to the President, Vice President, my Senators and Representatives, and even calling the President's comment line, asking him to postpone the deadline at least long enough to get everybody out. I remember feeling numb as I learned that the last plane left a day early instead, leaving behind hundreds of U.S. citizens and an unknown number of Afghani allies.
And now, twenty years have passed since two planes were deliberately crashed into the World Trade Center, ending thousands of lives and forever changing millions more. Two decades. Enough time for an entire generation to be born and grow into adulthood that never knew a world in which the Twin Towers hadn't been attacked and in which we haven't been at war with the perpetrators of the attack. At times I feel angry with those who've set in motion these uncertain and dangerous times that my children will now have to grow up in. But then I'm reminded of course that I'm still here, and confronted with the question, what can I do? Because remembering alone isn't worth much if the memories don't lead to some sort of action.
I can't bring back the thousands of lives lost, both in the initial attack and the conflict that followed. But I can take the time to remember them, because while I didn't personally lose someone close to me as a result of that day, every life is precious, and every death is worth mourning.
I can't stop the fighting overseas. But I can honor those brave men and women who sacrifice so much to protect us, and support those who currently have loved ones on active duty or who have lost loved ones while serving.
I can't force our nation's leaders to make the right decisions. But I can do my due diligence and be involved in the process of electing them and holding them accountable.
I can't end the political divisiveness in my country. But I can do my part to build bridges of understanding and encourage civility and unity, by word yes, but more importantly by example.
I can't bring everyone to safety who is currently in danger, nor feed everyone who is hungry. But I can be generous with my time, talents, and substance to help those around me, while also supporting organizations who are better equipped to help those far away.
I can't protect my family from every danger. But I can do my best to prepare for whatever the future might bring. And most of all, I can make sure my wife and children know that I love them, and that no matter what is happening in the world, their Heavenly Father loves them even more.
I remember 9/11. I remember so much pain and fear that followed as a result. But I also remember moments of hope and joy. While its important to acknowledge the pain, it doesn't have to define us. In spite of all the things outside our control, we can hold on to hope.
We can hold on to compassion.
We can hold on to love.