Once you permit those who are convinced of their own superior rightness to censor and silence and suppress those who hold contrary opinions, just at that moment the citadel has been surrendered. —Archibald MacLeish
My youngest son, the 18-year-old, was only three when this date became noteworthy. He doesn’t have any real memory of that day. His mother had taken him to a play date and was unaware of what was happening. I called her after the first plane hit and told her she should probably grab the little guy and head home just to be safe, away from downtown Atlanta. I was stuck at the convention center, my car unretrievable from the CNN Center where I had parked. He has no memory of how tight I held him and his brothers that night. Neither is he able to understand just how frightened we all were in that moment.
For all the controversies about who knew what when and what actions were taken, the numbers from that day are concrete: 2,753 died. 1,402 were employees in tower one. 614 were employees in tower two. 115 nations were represented among the dead, not just Americans. Only 291 bodies were found “intact.” Fires continued to burn for nearly 100 days afterward. Approximately 3,051 children lost a parent.
Other numbers are important, too. 12, 962 civil rights complaints were opened at the Council on American-Islamic Relations nationwide from 2002 to 2008. The average benefit received by each NYPD and FDNY widow was $1 million, but some families of World Trade Center employees received less than $50,000. An estimated $600 million was spent on the cleanup, not including subway repairs that cost over $7 billion and an additional $970 million spent by FEMA.
Blindsided By Fear
Twenty-six days later, the US started bombing Afghanistan. 2,343 US troops died in Operation Enduring Freedom. Fear gripped the nation in ways not imagined by anyone since World War II. An estimated 1.4 million people changed their travel plans for that holiday season, choosing to drive rather than fly. Applications to the CIA jumped a full 50 percent. Over 400,000 people still suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. What happened on this date shook us to our very core. Our collective response was to have a moment of silence, not as much out of respect as because we didn’t know what to say.
The problem is that scared people don’t always think rationally. Fear motivates us to do things that are unreasonable. We freeze when logic says to move. When we do move, we tend to turn in directions that ultimately put us in even greater danger. Acting on fear rarely works out to anyone’s advantage. That is why horror movies tend to have such a high body count. Fear makes us stupid.
Even worse, the fear turned us on each other. We started looking sideways at everyone. We enacted legislation that changed how we travel, how we come and go between countries, and even who can get a job. None of those things have proven to make us any safer, but we are still so scared fifteen years later that the majority of Americans oppose any kind of roll-back of post-9/11 laws. We have latched on to fear and refuse to let go.
Our Own Worst Enemy
Over the past fifteen years, we have allowed fear to turn us upon ourselves and upon humanity. We have tried to close our borders and when we were not able to do so we started hard-core discrimination against anyone who talks with an accent we find strange or looks remotely foreign. Every September 11, we have these moments of silence and the start yelling at each other about who is more American.
Since 2001, we have become more racially divided than we’ve been in 150 years. Blacks distrust whites (with good reason), Latinos distrust blacks, and anyone who looks to be of Middle Eastern decent had best be wearing body armor. Incidents of white privilege are more obvious than ever, but anyone who dares to say anything is bullied into silence. When a political party says that they’re going to “Make America Great Again,” what they’re saying is they want to make the US more white-centric, more pandering to the religious right, and basing even more of our actions on fear.
We have done more damage to our own country in the past 15 years than those three airplanes ever could. Our backs have been turned on the poor, the uneducated, the homeless. and even the veterans of Operation Enduring Freedom. We have become more selfish, more self-centered, and amazingly more intolerant of everyone who is not us. Together, we have torn our country limb from limb until all that remains are pieces. Millions of individual pieces too scared to consider doing anything cohesive.
Not A Time For Silence
Hundreds of thousands of people will take time today to observe a moment of silence. Even New York Fashion Week is observing a moment of silence. Who does that really benefit, though? Silence does not honor the dead if our actions on either side of that silence are committed to taking the lessons of that moment 15 years ago and improving. Unfortunately, we have been cowering in fear rather than learning anything. We don’t need silence, we need action.
We need people like Colin Kaepernick and Brandon Marshall who are willing to make some noise over continued racial injustice.
We need people who stand up and make noise, even in the face of tear gas and dog attacks, to stop oil companies from desecrating native tribal lands.
We need people who fight for the right of women who are never “asking for it,” who should always have complete control over what they do with their bodies, and whose rights have been stopped on by old white men for centuries.
We need people who refuse to be quiet about the economic injustice that leaves children without food and families without shelter for the winter.
We need people who yell, scream, and throw fits over the deplorable conditions of the American healthcare system.
We need people willing to go to the mat for veterans of our too-many wars, especially in regard to long-term mental health care.
We need people who are not silent in the face of illiteracy, discriminatory voting regulations, college debt, religious intolerance, our continuing rape culture, and elder abuse.
Mind you, every last one of these things existed prior to 9/11/2001. What has happened in the past 15 years, though, is we let the fear that consumed us on that day to force us into silence. In that silence of fear, we let these problems become worse. In some cases, we deliberately made them worse.
We don’t need any more moments of silence. If we are going to honor those who died 15 years ago, we need moments of action.
And that action is going to make some noise.