Editorial: Stop manufacturing a greater mission from 9/11

Sept. 11 marks the 19-year anniversary of the al-Qaeda-led terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, resulting in the deaths of nearly 3,000 Americans. Almost two decades after the devastation, the day remains fresh in our collective consciousness. 

The tragedy of the 9/11 attacks transcended cultural and geographic boundaries and political divides in a way that almost nothing else could. The attacks unhinged the lives of the fathers, mothers, husbands, wives and children of the thousands of victims. We all came of age in a world still wrestling with the consequences of the day; we may not remember the events ourselves, but the memories and high emotions have been distilled through adults around us. Our lives have been shaped by the decisions made in the immediate wake of 9/11, even as Americans moved further away from the fear and patriotism that influenced our entrance into conflict.  

Every year when this date comes around, Americans of all walks of life take a moment to remember those lost, to think about their families and friends and to ruminate on the enormous challenges the American citizenry has overcome. Memorials, tributes and yearly observances help successive generations make sense of these horrific attacks, and serve as an important tool in educating and working through the collective trauma of such an event.  

Unfortunately, the way that the attacks of Sept. 11 are remembered in this country frequently does a great disservice to those who lost their lives 19 years ago and is hijacked to serve blatantly partisan, racist and narrowly ideological purposes. Just as they were in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the victims of this unspeakable atrocity are repeatedly — and quite shamefully — deployed in order to shore up support for nation-building efforts in foreign countries, vast curtailments of civil liberties and aggressive racial and ethnic profiling campaigns. Meanwhile, yearly commemorations of the tragedy largely ignore, if not overtly legitimate, these profound historical and political implications, preferring to present the repugnance of the attack itself as the sole dimension worth reflecting on. 

There are, of course, understandable reasons for this. For one, it is politically useful for the U.S. government to present the attack as having been the unavoidable result of living in a free country — and in the process absolve U.S. intelligence and bureaucracy of culpability for the thousands of civilian lives lost to an extremist terrorist group. It is also advantageous that our (by and large) cursory understanding of the event, often summarized as an assault on our way of life by the Middle East, is constructed in a way that sufficiently justifies sustained, ruinous military campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. In this process, we are often not careful enough to discriminate between the reactionary extremists of al-Qaeda and those peaceful civilians who make up the vast majority of the Muslim community. It is a considerable disfavor to those who died that we should dilute their memory into fodder for the propagation of such exonerating, imperialist and racist views as so often attend remembrances of the event. 

This attack should be understood as a horrific tragedy committed by a group of violent extremists, and that should be the end of our speculation and politicization. To suggest that such an event tacitly authorized a multi-decade occupation of the Middle East, or xenophobia against Muslims or, worse, that the victims would have actively desired such “revenge” is to engage in the ultimate disrespect for the dead. In speaking of justification in events like this, we regrettably interpret our national history as some kind of supremacist “clash of civilizations,” a mindset left in the Middle Ages for good reason. Now that we are in the shadow of this horrible event, it is imperative that we understand how it has been taken advantage of and pledge that respect for the dead will not be subjugated to base jingoism or bloodthirst for innocent Middle Easterners.

Our hope for the University, and for future generations of Americans, is to not allow the sheer wickedness of this crime to eclipse these indispensable political, social and economic implications imperative to understanding the attacks, and to allow ourselves the breadth of focus that the entirety of this disaster deserves. What is needed is a greater understanding of the socio-historical significance of this tragic event, less ideological manipulation and more empathy for those who died — unable to speak for themselves, we must not take it upon ourselves to speak in their stead. 

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