I sometimes still worry that all the publicity centering around 9/11 drowns out the cries of those who died that day. I don’t want that to happen. The tragedy of their dying was corrupted from the very start by our leaders who failed to understand why they died and who used their dying for their own objectives.

Nineteen Years On

By December 7, 1958, the day that would “live in infamy” was a distant memory. Although we swore we might “forgive, but never forget,” we had moved on as a nation, far more obsessed with the space race (Sputnik hovered menacingly overhead) and the arms race (that mythical missile gap). In October 1979, few of us reflected on those frightening days nineteen years earlier when we came closest to annihilating our species. Instead, the “missiles of October” were lost in the fog of our collective memory, and we were caught in the throes of the Iran crisis and a greater crisis of self-confidence. Even the pain of the Vietnam War, which had haunted and hounded us as a nation for so many years, was hardly felt in 1992 as we continued our unseemly victory lap for “winning” the Cold War, and the Fall of the Wall drowned out all other voices in our ears.

September 11 is different. nineteen years on and the sound of those towers crashing down still echoes through our country, and the silence of those dead still haunts those of us still living. This is difficult for Americans. Our collective attention span is notoriously short, and we prefer to flit from issue to issue, from crusade to crusade. For us, nineteen years is a very long time. We have an urgent yearning to be distracted and to move on. But I haven’t been distracted; I haven’t moved on.

What Went Wrong

We never got closure. We never got that cathartic release that comes with victory. We never even got the chance (as was the case with Vietnam) to move on to new crises and new enemies. Instead, our policies and actions over the last two decades have enabled that which we sought to vanquish to metastasize. It is a terrible realization to know that a child born in 2001 is now old enough to die on the endless battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq.

I sometimes still worry that all the publicity centering around 9/11 drowns out the cries of those who died that day. I don’t want that to happen. The dead deserve to be remembered, to be honored, to be missed. And not to be used. The tragedy of their dying was corrupted from the very start by our leaders who failed to understand why they died and who used their dying for their own objectives. On the Left, many shook their self-righteous fingers and said that while it was a tragedy, what else could you expect when the United States is so belligerent and domineering? Many on the Left are too ready to find an excuse for any crime committed. They are forgetful of the loss of these innocents, and forgetful of all those left behind who miss their fathers and mothers and spouses and children.

And on the Right, it is no better. So many of them still shaking their self-righteous fingers and using this tragedy to curtail liberty and provoke violence in places that have nothing to do with 9/11. Mischaracterizing the killers as “hating our freedom” did a great injustice to the dead. September 11 had nothing to do with a threat to freedom; it had everything to do with justice, albeit a distorted sense of justice. The killers were not evil in a Manichean sense: They were not the opposite of good. Rather, they were evil in the classic Judeo-Christian-Islamic sense: They were twisted in their goodness. They wanted justice and in pursuing what they thought to be justice, committed horrific crimes. They are an object lesson for all of us: Being too sure, being too certain that one is absolutely right and everyone else is completely wrong leads to much pain and great sorrows. Nearly every barbarism and almost every crime is committed by those who believe themselves to have been somehow injured.

What is it about this tragedy that makes it different? It is not merely because so many people died a horrible death, because so many die in so many horrible ways every day. Perhaps the answer is that this was a real tragedy, and real tragedy has two indispensable components. The first is avoidability. The inevitable, no matter how horrible, no matter how painful, at least offers the solace that it was beyond our control, beyond our wisdom, beyond what could be expected from us. But 9/11 was not inevitable; it was preventable. Some will be angry with this assertion. Inevitability is so comforting. Inevitability is so reassuring because, inevitably, it absolves us from responsibility. But this horror was not predestined.

The second essential ingredient: futility. That the suffering seemingly was in vain—that no lasting good has yet come from it. Yes, we now pay greater attention to the Islamic world, striving hard to better understand it. Yes, we have improved intelligence coordination and law enforcement cooperation, and we strive to make the world safer and more prosperous. But the threat remains, and discord in the world has not abated. In the initial aftermath of the tragedy that did not seem to be the case. Our country came together as it rarely has in our 242 years of history. More surprising, much of the world came together as it had never done in 5000 years of history. But these were fleeting visions and have not endured.

A Prayer for the Dead and the Living

I still wake up some days angry. Angry at those that flew the planes and those that rationalized the slaughter, those who danced in the streets and those who silently smirked, those who even today try to justify it and those who try to minimize it. And I cannot shake the notion that somehow we failed: we diplomats, soldiers, law enforcement officers, and other public servants. We somehow faltered and three thousand died.

And there are hard questions we need to keep asking ourselves. We owe it to the dead. What have we learned? How have our priorities changed? Is our vision less myopic? Are our policies sounder? Are we any wiser? Are we any more secure? Can we bet on a future devoid of another September 11?

There has never been a period of history when so many people have lived so freely; never a time of such great and general prosperity. Thousands each day risk their lives fighting those whose religious nihilism threatens us. Thousands more every day work long hours to protect the innocent and to lift up the downtrodden. Yet we still find our lives wanting, our security and safety still out of reach. We live in a broken world; we live in a broken time. We come from broken places. But we should resolve that these dead did not die in vain. The deaths of these three thousand should have meaning. Good can be brought forth from evil. We believe this because it is part of our continuing duty and responsibility to those who died. And there is no better way to honor these dead than to work humbly and honestly for a more just world.

Perhaps it is enough simply to say that I still see them in my mind’s eye, falling from the windows, unable to escape any other way. I see them fall and I lose faith and hope in this world. I have lost faith in everything except faith; I have lost hope in everything except hope. A once-famous but now obscure medieval Jewish scholar, perhaps inspired by Psalm 51, wrote of building an altar from the fragments of our broken hearts. To elaborate on this sentiment:

From the fragments of broken dreams, He builds a bed for restful sleep.

From the fragments of broken hope, He builds a bridge to a better land.

From the fragments of our broken lives, He builds a shelter to keep us safe.

And from the fragments of my broken heart, I will build an altar to God.

This essay originally appeared here in September 2018.

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The featured image is by Michael Foran and is licensed under Creative Commons 2.0, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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