I fell in love with a shambling corpse, the day the towers fell.
I was fourteen years old, in small-town Colorado. We clustered around a television that showed, again and again, a commercial jet flying into the World Trade Center. The broadcast footage, a mere 45 minutes old, was already a relic of the long-distant past. Moments earlier, the world had watched the second tower fall. Thousands were dead. The myth of America Invicta lay bludgeoned to death on live TV.
As I watched the old world end on national television, my initial feelings of vulnerability and helplessness gave way to bloodletting rage like nothing I have felt before or since. By the time Yasser Arafat offered what felt like forced condolences in the hours after the attack, I knew with knife-edge clarity that we had to wipe him and every other terrorist off the face of this earth. We had to go to war to protect America: a place that never felt so fragile or so precious to me as it did in that instant. We would stand united.
Or would we? Before the day was over, a classmate of mine expressed the same desire to wipe out America’s enemies. But he did not call those enemies terrorists. He called them Arabs.
That’s not right, I retorted, more confused than angry. I’m Arabic. We aren’t all like that. My father came here from Syria because he loved this country. How could anyone think I wasn’t part of America on the same day I’d realized how much I loved it?
I did not yet know, as Oscar Wilde wrote, that each man kills the thing he loves. All I knew was that I wanted to defend and export freedom. I wanted to serve my country. And, buried half-conscious beneath my patriotism, I wanted to prove that it was my country. That my classmate was wrong and that I belonged here.
Four years later, I turned 18 and signed my enlistment papers.
THE UNIFORM FELT GOOD on me.
I enlisted in 2005, back when America was so desperate for soldiers to fight in their two-front war that they handed out $20,000 sign-on bonuses to people who qualified for jobs like “Signals Intelligence Operator.” I shipped off to basic training, and then to Monterey, California for 15 months of intensive language school. The army immediately assigned me Arabic, of course; the last name made that inevitable though I did not speak a single word.
After barely squeaking through my language evaluations, I volunteered for Airborne school to escape my initial assignment to a desk in Georgia. I spent the next three weeks jumping out of perfectly good airplanes, then skipped Thanksgiving leave to make the cutoff to join my new unit in Afghanistan. It would be the first of two deployments with the 82nd Airborne Division, one in 2008, the other in 2009-2010.
Cognitive dissonance began almost immediately. During my first deployment, I was sure the problem was my unit. By the end of the second, I knew it was far worse than that. We brought something we called freedom and democracy to Afghanistan at the barrel of a gun. We demanded the Afghans accept our vision of who they should be without bothering to learn a thing about them. Little wonder the corrupt government we installed lasted exactly as long as our presence did.
Military intelligence is a strangely intimate profession. I listened, every day, to the communications of our enemies — not just about their plans to kill us but about their lives as well. It became clear to me, at some point, that these were not radical Islamists hell-bent on America’s destruction. They were, by and large, young men who wanted to be left alone. Men who would never have fought us if we were not killing hundreds of thousands of their people and telling them what to do.
After twenty long years, the war is over. We lost. 67 percent of Democrats and 57 percent of Republicans now believe the Afghanistan war was not worth fighting.
Ask them whether we should have invaded Afghanistan in the first place, however, and the answer often changes. Voices grow grim and quiet. Of course we had to go. We had no choice. We remember what it felt like, after all, when the towers fell. We were told to never forget.
But why are pain and anger the things we most remember?
IN THE SUMMER OF 2005, a group of human rights activists, academics, and philanthropists tried to get America to remember something else.
The International Freedom Center (IFC) was originally planned for the World Trade Center memorial site. Its objective was to not merely commemorate the tragedy, but actively resist the ideas that led to the attack. The center’s museum would present the 9/11 attacks as another volley in the eternal war between tyranny and liberty. Its lecture hall would host lively debate and promote free expression. “[The IFC] will not exist to precisely define ‘freedom’ or to tell people what to think,” IFC President Richard J. Toefel wrote, “but to get them to think — and to act in the service of freedom as they see it.”
On June 7th, 2005, World Trade Center Memorial Foundation board member Debra Burlingame wrote a scathing editorial denouncing the concept as borderline treasonous. The memorial, she believed, ought to focus exclusively on visceral horror, human loss, and noble sacrifices of 9/11. “Instead of exhibits and symposiums about Internationalism and Global Policy,” Burlingame argued, “we should hear the story of the courageous young firefighter whose body, cut in half, was found with his legs entwined around the body of a woman.”
What self-respecting pro-war pundit could possibly resist such raw and bloody meat? “A Blame America Monument is not what we need or deserve,” wrote Michelle Malkin, a political commentator now best known for her vocal and consistent support of white nationalism. “It is reminder [sic] to the American people that the intellectuals are their enemies,” journalist and philosophy PhD Robert Tracinski wrote, presumably with a straight face. Roger L. Simon, now an editor-at-large for the far-right Epoch Times, sarcastically suggested that IFC member George Soros rename the museum “A Memorial to the Victims of the American Gulag in Guantanamo.”
Toefel believed both types of memorial could exist at the site where the Twin Towers once stood, but Burlingame had it right: the two narratives are incompatible. One centers worship of sacrifice and remembrance of pain, the other channels that pain into an effort to better understand the world. One leads to revenge, the other seeks to overcome violence through unity and connection. The vicious fight over the World Trade Center memorial was a desperate, bloody battle to shape the collective memory of September 11th and — by extension — America’s future.
Burlingame won. One by one, New York congresspeople condemned the IFC: John Sweeney, Peter King, Vito Fossella, and then-Senator Hillary Clinton. True to form, Chuck Schumer feebly called for compromise, as Democrats so often did in the wake of 9/11. The IFC found itself entirely without allies.
On September 28th, 2005, New York governor George Pataki banned the IFC from the World Trade Center memorial.
Burlingame got precisely the kind of memorial she wanted: one that reflected her own deep trauma at losing her brother, the pilot of the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. Any attempt to govern her personal grief would be unconscionable. So too, though, is projecting it onto an entire nation. We built a monument to the anger stage of grief in the heart of America’s largest city and swore a blood pact to never forget, never process, never reach acceptance.
“FIRST OF ALL I AM offering my con— condolences. Condolences of the Palestinian people.”
I am watching Yasser Arafat again, twenty years and two deployments later.
“To the American president, President Bush. To his government. To the American people, for this terrible time.” Arafat looks down, shakes his head ever so slightly. “We are completely shocked. Completely shocked. Unbelievable.”
I was correct, two decades ago, about the insincerity. This is not a video of a man consumed by grief. It is a man consumed by fear.
His trembling lips. His shaking voice. How could we not hear it? He was afraid, and he was right to be afraid. He knew that even as he spoke, Palestinians celebrated in the streets: regular people who only knew their enemy was hurt. They could not see the consequences of such actions, but Arafat could. Leader of his people, father of his children. Arafat begged us not to hurt them on national TV.
We could have understood. The footage of New York City’s streets that day bore an eerie resemblance to the streets of Palestine in the past months of conflict there. Suddenly, the horrors of total warfare were not vaguely sad abstractions happening to far-away strangers, but horrors beyond imagining happening to ourselves.
We experienced, for the first time, the heartbreak and terror millions feel at the hands of American missiles when we use them as pawns in our endless proxy wars.
In that moment, we could have chosen to see why so many hated us so much. We could have looked at our own fury and understood the kind of anger that might lead someone to crash a plane into a skyscraper. We could have dared to feel the pain of it — the tragedy, the waste — and vowed: never again. Not here. Not anywhere.
But we didn’t.
By the time the bombs began to fall in Afghanistan, 88 percent of us wanted war. The remaining 12 percent were either ignored or, worse, attacked as traitors. When the Taliban offered to give up Osama Bin Laden to a third party nation if shown evidence of his involvement, we scornfully dismissed this gesture towards due process as an impediment to catharsis. “There’s no need to negotiate,” President Bush declared in an October 14th press conference. “There’s no need to discuss innocence or guilt. We know he’s guilty. Turn him over.”
Two months later, the last Taliban stronghold fell and Bin Laden escaped into Pakistan. Too quick. Not enough blood. Two years later, we found another enemy to destroy.
Two decades later, we remain awash in blood and anger. A destabilized Middle East, three-quarters of a million people dead. Militarized police. Mass surveillance deployed casually against civilians. A Department of Homeland Security bloated with cash and scornful of oversight. A militarized border patrol authorized to conduct unconstitutional searches and seizures on the two-thirds of Americans who live within 100 miles of an international border.
And that “kill every Arab” sentiment I heard 20 years ago today? It’s all grown up. It’s not school children calling for genocide anymore. It’s a president who rode a wave of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim fervor to the White House. It’s his followers who, seeing their champion defeated, wait patiently for their next chance at remaking America in the image of their hate.
“NEVER FORGET” IS AN INSANE way to live.
Land of the free, monitored and brutalized. Home of the brave, willing to hurt anyone and everyone in our war against our own terror. I wanted to prove that I belong here. But who could wish to belong to the thing we have become?
At no point have we lived up to the promise of our own self-conception. Our history is marred by genocide, slavery and the failures of Reconstruction. But never have we so explicitly turned our backs on the thing we always imagined we could be: the shining city on the hill, a beacon of freedom, home to huddled masses yearning to be free. We buried that America the day the towers fell.
I do not know if we can fix this. I hope so. This is still my country. I still love the thing we could have been.
We can never undo the harm of these last twenty years, both to the world and to ourselves. But we could, perhaps, learn from our mistakes. We could remember that, when the towers fell, our first thought was not of vengeance or of war but of the people we love. The way that compassion spread to those we had never met and manifested itself in the need to help. The way untrained volunteers rushed into the wreckage to rescue those trapped beneath the rubble. The way people lined up to give blood to the Red Cross and opened their wallets to those in need. Disagreements that seemed insurmountable on September 10th shrank into nothing. We remembered, suddenly, that human life is precious, and beautiful, and fragile.
It is time to bury our rage and fear in an unmarked grave. Turn our faces towards the future and finally reach the acceptance stage of our national grief. Try to move towards something better. A country worth belonging to.
We have to forget.
Twenty years is long enough.