There are some moments in history that will never be forgotten, seared into the zeitgeist by the sheer brute force of the pain left in their wake. Moments so grievous that their fallout ricochets off of the generations that come after.
I was 14 when the terrorists chose to strike–a difficult in-between age where you are no longer a child but not yet an adult, an age when your questions begin to carry more weight, yet your understanding of the complex, paradoxical nature of the world is just beginning to take shape. Sometimes I wonder what my generation–millennials–would be like, how differently we would walk in this world if we had not grown into adulthood under the shadow of fear induced by the collective trauma of our country following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Like all who are old enough to remember, I can recall that day with vivid clarity. What I also recall is the fear that came after–the way we would check the news each morning to see what color-code the threat level fell into, desperately seeking a measure of security when the world had just reminded us that safety is only ever an illusion. All it took was 19 men, the purposeful actions of 19 men, to kill nearly 3,000 people (injuring more than 6,000 others) and forever shift the psychological standing of an entire country. The actions of 19 led to a generation of boys being shipped off to foreign soils–often returned to us mentally broken and forever changed by the atrocities they were asked to bear witness to, in an effort for us to once again feel safe. How few people it takes to alter the course of a civilization.
It has been 19–almost 20–years since al-Qaeda attacked us on our own soil and yet I still can’t watch footage of that day without feeling the air rush out of my lungs and the white-hot heat of pain pierce my heart, doubling me over with the intensity of the trauma. The pain from the loss of our countrymen and our sense of security has not dampened in the nearly two decades that have passed. Yet, once a year, I force myself to watch. To remember. To feel.
Naively I thought I needed to force myself to never forget, as if we aren’t still living within the blasts of that assault. Only two weeks ago, on Wednesday, Jan. 6, I found myself not remembering but reliving that day, as a group of Americans desecrated the Capitol building with the intention of instilling fear into their elected leaders and their fellow countrymen. I forced myself to watch the videos of Americans storming our own capitol, gleefully attempting to incite terror, and as I watched I felt my stomach churn, not in fear but in realization. It wasn’t the act of sedition against our country that made me sick, it was the faces of the people perpetuating the attack. There weren’t a lot of young people in the videos I watched; most of them looked to be around my own age and older. To watch middle-aged people–people who lived through the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks, who are more than old enough to grasp the weight of what those attacks did to us as a counrty, willingly engaging in an act of violence with the intention of scaring their own countrymen was in many ways worse than the first time I witnessed an attack on our own soil.
As I watched, and later read the comments of people bickering among each other over which political side was to blame, and who was a winner and who was a loser, it finally dawned on me that al-Qaeda had won. They weren’t aiming for an immediate victory, they were aiming for this–the decimation of the United States of America from within. To instill so much terror into our people that we would grow to distrust even each other–so lost in fear that we can no longer perceive real threats from imagined ones.
To say that I was disillusioned is an understatement. I am a natural empath, and my ability to feel everything so intensely is both my greatest strength and my biggest weakness. In an attempt to pull me out of empathic despair, and likely to divert me from further discussing the issue with him, my husband reminded me that my column date aligned with Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday–a gentle nudge to channel my negative energy into something productive. Usually the suggestion would have worked as much to the chagrin of those close to me, I love nothing more than having an open platform to wax poetically about the prophetic nature of Dr. King’s sermons. But for the first time, my faith in Dr. King’s Dream (that change is possible at a systemic level) has wavered. As the bickering between neighbors crescendos into ever-worsening degrees of vitriol, I wonder if Dr. King also wavered in his dream. If he ever sat at his desk, listening to the careless spewing of hatred around him, and felt that the forces he was standing against were too big and too encompassing too be moved–that their grips were too strong and to unnoticed to be lessened.
The thing that most draws me to the teachings of Dr. King is that he was a man who understood the enemy. He knew that the fight was not against men, but against the very systems of injustice that entrap us all. I think if he had been alive, to witness either of the attacks to our system of democracy, but especially to witness the insurrection that happened earlier this month, he would point us to my personal favorite of his sermons “Loving Your Enemies," which he first delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in 1957.
Dr. King is most remembered as a leader of the civil rights movement, yet he was first and foremost a minister and it was his commitment to be radical in his following of Christ that led to his work fighting for equality. In “Loving Your Enemies” Dr. King gives what can only be described as a prophetic explanation of what Jesus meant when he commanded us to love not only our neighbors (those most like us) but our enemies as well. The sermon examines the very nature of love, dismissing society’s tendency to water-down the power of choosing to live your life in a state of love–to make conscious decisions out of love, not because of tenuous feelings of sentiment but as a radical commitment to yourself, to your God and to your counrty.
I think we should all stop pointing fingers at who is to blame for the problems in our country and just take a moment to really take in the fact that we have some serious issues facing us. It doesn’t matter which side of the political spectrum you fall on, or which side you think the people who stormed the Capitol building fall on, the fact is that a group of Americans chose to incite terror on their own people. Period. That’s a problem. Two groups of Americans care more about which political party leader is sitting in the White House than the unity of their own people. That’s a problem. Blind allegiance to political parties and political leaders, as if we live in a monarchy and our leaders are members of a ruling class and not merely representatives of the people that make up a free county. That is a problem.
Our greatest asset as a country is our diversity. Our diversity of genetics, of beliefs, of experiences, of culture allows us the ability to be an unprecedented force in this world, if we could ever get past our own pettiness and really work together to strengthen each other. We act as if it matters who is sitting in office, but the truth is that the people, the masses, determine both the character and the direction of the country. Change does not come from the top down but from the bottom up.
I am going to make another unpopular statement: I don’t think it matters how we got to this point. I think the only thing that matters right now is that we fix it. The time has come to stop our pageantry, to put away the flags and the hats and the symbols of division, and to start to start doing the work of real patriots. We need to actively and consciously heal the divisions in our country, and that work happens in the trenches. It happens in the everyday moments and interactions with the people around us. Every single moment of every single day we choose whether we are going to walk in fear or walk in love and those choices have consequences for all of us.
It is hard work to love people who are different from you. It is hard to act in love when someone says/does something harmful or offensive. It is hard to stand in your own integrity when the people around you are spewing division. It is hard work to walk in love because the world that we were socialized into does not value love over force. We don’t have to love our neighbors or our enemies for their own sake–often they won’t deserve it, but we do have to make the choice to actively love them for the sake of our country. Because every day that we spend fighting among each other endangers our country, it endangers our troops (especially those deployed on foreign soils) and it endangers the generations of Americans that will come after us.