On the morning of September 11, 2001, I drove to the university for my classes. I flipped the radio on, like I always do, to listen to pop music on my commute. This morning was different. There was no music. Instead, the morning DJs were trying to confirm whether two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center. Their voices wavered between incredulity and terror. It seemed like I had been dropped into a Hollywood blockbuster. Planes didn’t just crash into buildings, I mumbled to myself. What was going on? I parked my car in the familiar dirt parking lot at the university. I couldn’t get out of my car. I turned my radio up and waited to hear confirmation of what was really happening. I called my fiancé to find out if he had any more information than I did. Was this a prank that the local radio station thought was funny? I was not amused. Or was there something more sinister going on? He wasn’t sure. Eventually, we both learned that this was not a prank. It was a terrorist attack.
Many of us can recite the basics of the tragedy: Four passenger planes were hijacked. Two crashed into the North and South towers of the World Trade Center. One crashed into the headquarters of the Pentagon, and the last crashed into a field outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The original target for the final plane was Washington, D.C. until the passengers thwarted the plan.
Classes were cancelled. Unsure how to react, I watched the seemingly endless news coverage. News anchors, pundits, and journalists struggled to make sense of what happened. Senseless violence could not be an option.
It was one of the few moments in my life where I felt like time slowed down in a discernable way, and I was unable to escape its sluggish pace. Minutes stretched by. Hours seemed like days. The clock seemed to understand that suffering takes a very long time. A country singer later warbled that September 11th was “the day that the world stopped turning.” He was not wrong, but he also was not right, for the world managed to move along, even as Americans sought answers and villains to blame for the tragedy that had befallen them.
2996 people died in the 9/11 attacks, including the 19 hijackers. An additional 343 firefighters and 72 law enforcement officers—courageous first responders—also perished. Mired in grief and horror, I couldn’t turn off my TV.
In the aftermath of that September day, I used to imagine that I could feel the end of one era of American culture snapping shut and hear the violent beginnings of another screaming onto center stage. The shadow of 9/11 was long and inescapable. I got married three months later, and my mother feared my traveling on a plane. Her fear was palpable and crushing. She glimpsed a future in which no one was ever safe. The illusion of safety had been ripped away from her—and she was not the only one.
I tried for years to explain to my students how the memory of that day still stops my breath, and how I viscerally knew the world had changed. I think about George W. Bush’s certainty about the division of our world into good and evil. About his insistence that the terrorist attacks of September 11 confirmed that evil exists, even if we refuse to recognize it. I still wonder what it must be like to have Bush’s clarity. We’ve all encountered the toll that his particular kind of certainty has taken on both the nation and our relationships with other nations. Life after September 11 appears stark in its difference from the time that came before. Terrorism. Osama bin Laden. WMDs. Axis of Evil. The Taliban. The war in Iraq. Armed conflicts in Afghanistan. Security checkpoints in airports. Terror alerts, color-coded for easy transmission. Orange, red, or yellow. There’s a whole lexicon of terror that’s now a part of our common language, expressing not just a shared experience of shock and fear but its legacy in our common life today.
In all of this there was an attempt to suggest that the threats to America lay beyond our borders. Fear of foreign threats gave rise to racial profiling and concerted efforts to stop the construction of mosques. Americans sought security and comfort by stereotyping certain bodies as inherently threatening. “United we stand.” (Or at least, we were supposed to stand together. The facade of unity became more important than necessary dissent.) Time moved on, but some of us never moved with it.
Fourteen years later, we still seek to remember 9/11 with sympathy, gravitas, and more than a little distance. 3411 people died on that day. Now there are moments of silence, lowering of flags, op-eds, prayers, speeches, and news coverage. We commemorate this tragedy in the second week of September. We play at patriotism while avoiding the hard questions that still remain about that day and its aftermath. We continue to push forward by looking back selectively.
On this anniversary, September 11th once again stops me in my tracks. I’m staggered by the loss of life. I’m caught up in the horror. This surprises me. In other years, things in my life directed my attention away. Small children required my concentration. The anniversary passed as an ordinary day, whether it should have or not.
This year, I’m struck by how different the horror of the terrorist attacks appears from the horrors that we now face as a nation. Black and native peoples die at the hands of the police. As of July, the police had killed 550 people. Another reckoning puts the count at 761 people. The Guardian predicts that the number will swell to 1000 by the end of the year. This summer, a white supremacist shot nine African Americans in their church. Two weeks ago during a live news broadcast, a black co-worker shot two white journalists. Mass shootings, Mother Jones reports, are on the rise. This year alone, there have been 204 of them.
The routineness of death and destruction wears on me. The body count overwhelms me.
On this anniversary of September 11, I find myself thinking about these recent examples of violence and how we react to them. We commemorate some losses, but others become unremarkable and expected. We struggle with how to react to and remember everyday violence. More and more people denounce the murder of black and native peoples by the police. Sure, there’s media attention. But where are the forceful condemnations that seem so plentiful when it comes to terrorists from outside our borders? Why do some who lose their lives to violence earn sympathy and outrage while others are ignored and overlooked—or even blamed? Why don’t we care more?
I started reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, a powerful reflection on, and analysis of, how race is constructed in the U.S. through racist attacks, words, and legislation. Written as a letter to the author’s teenage son, the book offers a damning critique of American ideals and the pursuit of “The American Dream” by arguing that both are based in racism. As Coates writes:
And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies (11).
The routine violence that Coates forces his readers to confront keeps me up at night. He wants us to know that such violence is the very thing that makes idealized visions of America as a nation possible. The destruction of black bodies has been normalized—so white Americans can overlook the suffering because they are used to seeing it. It’s gotten so bad that only terrorism from beyond our shores seems remarkable and exceptional enough to provoke natural reactions of sympathy and outrage. Other forms of violence have become mundane, to the point that some refuse to admit that violence against African Americans is terrorism. It is easy to scroll past the headlines. It is hard to protest that which we’ve learned to not see.
As I read Coates, who isn’t religious, I wondered what the work of churches should be in all of this. Where are the prophetic voices that speak against racism and violence and death?
The #BlackLivesMatter movement speaks out. Activists and protestors do too. If churches seek to be relevant in this moment, then the most important work will be to amplify these voices and support their organizations. I’m inspired by the ministers who sent photos of themselves to police departments to use for target practice, instead of the mug shots of black youth that the police snipers had used. These ministers give me hope. They are no longer ignoring how racism defines American culture, and I wish more people would follow their examples. I want to see more action like this. Is it that churches are actively trying to bring attention to these movements, but their efforts aren’t visible? Or is it that churches are failing to try? I’m unsure. What I do know is that the burden placed on black bodies is too heavy. It is time to work toward alleviating that weight.
This September 11th, I’ll mourn the lives that were taken from us fourteen years ago, but I’ll also mourn all of the souls that have been taken from us this year in police violence and mass shootings. I’ll hope for our nation to be better. One way to make this happen is to support Campaign Zero’s crucial efforts to eliminate police violence through the development of new policing policies. The campaign is engaging lawmakers at the city, state, and federal levels as it seeks to limit police interventions, improve community interactions, and create and ensure accountability. We can help, and we should.