If any of us live long enough, there will come the day when our children are old and aware enough to ask us the question “What did 9/11 mean to you and how did its effects change your life?” Today, as most of us take the time to look back at the last ten years of our lives, I would like to take the opportunity to look forward, to see ourselves another ten to twenty years in our future, and to ask what words and in what context we might one day describe the events of the last ten years once we have found ourselves far gone from their immediate emotional impact. So…when that day finally comes, how will we explain the last ten years of our lives to the next generation? Will we sit them down and start from the beginning to the end or jump around and hit all the good details and highlights? Will we show them pictures of times long past, friends now with God, and places to which we have never returned, or will we simply let our words craft their own images within their minds? Will we drag our skeletons out of the closet, expose our failures, our mistakes, and our misguided thoughts or will we simply be too embarrassed, too proud, or too afraid? What will this entire process reveal about ourselves, our relationships, our hopes, and our dreams? And in the end, will we be able to hold our heads high and accept the things we have done and the world we have built for our children, or will we bury our heads in shame, sadness, and remorse only to look our children in the eye and explain that we have failed them…but that at least they can learn from our mistakes as we once hoped to learn from those of our parents before us?
While all of us can explain our personal feelings and emotions on September 11th, 2001, how will we explain our actions beginning on September 12th? Did we post a flag in our yard or in our window? Did we donate our time and our money to charity? Did we join the military? Did we support those who did? What prayers did we offer to our God? What did patriotism, freedom, and democracy truly mean to us? Did we reconnect with loved ones, with neighbors, and with our fellow citizens or did we retreat into the quiet solitude of our own minds, our own hearts, and seek out our own answers, our own rationality? What words did we share with our parents? What wisdom could they offer us? Or were they simply just as shocked and speechless as we were?
What did terrorism mean to us? Why did we declare a war on it? Did we find relief when Bush declared amid the rubble of our Twin Towers that they would “hear all of us soon”? What kind of catharsis did we experience when our bombs began falling on foreign soil? Did we hate all Muslims or just the “bad ones”? Could any of us even locate Afghanistan on a map the morning of September 10th, 2001? Did we know about the Soviet experience there? The British one? The Great Game? Could we name even one great empire that once held that piece of ground in the middle of Central Asia along the shadow of the Silk Road? Did we know of Ahmad Shah Moussoud, the “Lion of Panjshir” who met his end on 9 September 2001 shattering the unity of the Northern Alliance? Do the Afghans still mark his passing in the same way that we mark still mark the falling of our towers? What do they now think of Karzai?
How did we feel about the Patriot Act? Was allowing our nation to spy on its own citizens a just price to pay for a sense of security? Did we tremble when we heard the word “anthrax”? Did we hesitate when we opened our mail or went to our shopping malls, our sporting events, our public gatherings? Did we look over our shoulders, take a second look at our neighbors, buy new security systems, or begin locking our doors at night?
Why did we invade Iraq? Were we afraid of mass destruction? Did we believe we could truly spread democracy from the muzzle of a rifle? Did we go to liberate a people or to acquire their resources and support our military-industrial complex? Was the war inevitable regardless of 9/11? What did we feel when the statue of Saddam fell, when our soldiers occupied his palaces, when our bombs fell on his land? What questions will our children ask of Abu Grahib? Of Guantanamo? Of extraordinary rendition? What will we tell them of waterboarding? Of torture? Of the rule of law? As our wars dragged on, did we ever change our minds? Did the deaths of Hussein and bin Laden bring us any relief or satisfaction? How many compromises were we prepared to make with our own morality in the pursuit of revenge?
When our children learn to do simple math, how will we explain that three thousand innocent dead warranted the further destruction of over two hundred thousand? When natural disasters, famine, and poverty claim the lives of millions each year, how will we justify not declaring a war on those human catastrophes? When disaster came to New Orleans, why did we allow our soldiers and mercenaries to shoot black people and then a few years later choose to elect a black President? How will we explain the interventions we did not seek? The genocide in Sudan? The mass rape and killing in the Congo? The lawlessness of Somalia? Why did we not topple the Qaddafi regime sooner? The Bashir regime? The Assad regime? The Mugabe regime? What will we tell them of Gaza and of the Israeli occupations and wars? How did we select the battlegrounds of our war on terror? What dictators and warlords were we forced to make concessions with, propping up their security forces along the way?
What will we tell our children of our economic recession? How did we believe we could fight two major wars without a bit of sacrifice at home? How much treasure was worth expending for the cause of democracy? How many friends were worth losing? Why did we not prepare our exit strategies from the beginning? Why did we fail to build our civilian capacities in support of sustainable peace and development? Why did we not seek to understand the cultures and people we were occupying and the places we were going?
What fruits did we gather from our efforts and our sacrifices? Did seeing girls attend school in Afghanistan, people voting in Iraq, and development take hold in foreign lands grant us any relief or happiness? Did we feel safer at home while our soldiers served abroad? What did we feel when terror came to London and Madrid? Did we even ever think of Pakistan, India, and Kashmir? How will we explain the Arab Spring? Was it a victory of democracy and freedom or a new security threat we could not control? Did it teach us of the power and universality of our ideals or did it scare us with new instability and a potential rise of Islamism?
Did we make friends in other parts of the world? Did we travel abroad or embrace the security of our own country? Did we ever see true poverty? Violence? Oppression? Did we educate ourselves on world events or were we too caught up in finding a job, establishing a career, seeking love, and building a life at home? Did we take great risks or choose to play it safe? Did we live in fear or seek out opportunity?
In the end, what lessons did we gather from the first decade our lives following the fall of the towers? Did we make any progress on building the future society our children would one day inherit or did we falter through our narrow-mindedness, our hubris, and our human imperfections? How did we eventually pick up the pieces of our lives and move our people forward into the future? Did we ever learn that love is far more powerful than hate? That our greatest weapons are truly no match for human compassion, human connection? Did we use the memory of those we lost as reason to stay our course or question it and seek out ways of making it truer? Did we ever stop believing in the American Dream, our values, or our culture? What did we do with the short time we had been given to make our county and our world a more hospitable place for humanity?
As we remember a powerful day now a full decade in our past, I only hope we can take some of our own lessons from that experience and continue to move our societies forward in the direction they must go. While many people have died long before their time since that fateful day, we must honor their sacrifice not with revenge, but with the hope of building sustainable peace and lasting solutions for our world. One day, each of us will have to explain ourselves to the next generation….Let’s just try to make our story something we can be proud of…
Here’s to another decade…may the sacrifices of those we lost never be forgotten…as well as the world they hoped to build…
11 SEP 2011, 2030 AST, Orgun-E, Paktika, Afghanistan