I share the following poem with a fair amount of trepidation, for I am acutely aware that it may offend and/or anger some who read it. I have chosen to post it today, rather than yesterday, in the hope that this deferment will help to communicate that my intent is not to minimize the horror and suffering of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks.
My heart breaks for those who lost their lives, for those who lost loved ones, for those who bear deep and enduring scars of various types, and for the hatred that incited the violent actions of that day—and it swells with gratitude for those who rushed, at great risk to their own lives and well-being, into harm’s way to do whatever they could to offer aid to others.
But for 15 years now, every time I’ve heard someone (usually someone white and/or affluent) say that 9/11 changed everything, I have silently wrestled with the sense that this is more true for some of us than it is for others. For some Americans, the world was basically a safe and happy place on September 10, and a sad and scary one on the 12th. For others, life before 9/11 was already characterized by far too much struggle, suffering, fear, discrimination, threat, and attack.
This year, as battles rage over national anthem protests, the Black Lives Matter movement, and other topics that highlight how different the experience of America is for different groups of Americans, I feel compelled to add this long-stifled reflection (an almost-certainly imperfect/insufficient response that I can only even attempt because I have been so graciously welcomed and educated by non-white, non-affluent communities and friends) to the conversation—and to plead with my fellow privileged Americans to try, in whatever limited way we are able, to imagine what it must be like to face the homegrown terrors that some of our neighbors (Americans of African, Latin American, and many Asian descents; American Muslims; members of the LGBTQ community; and others) confront every day.*
There are many things that I love dearly about this country of ours. But there are also things that have been and continue to be terribly, terribly wrong with how we do life together here. I pray that as we seek to be honest and, where necessary, repentant about those things, we will be better able to labor together toward the beautiful vision of liberty and justice for all.
The towers fell,
and choking clouds of dust and smoke
darkened the sky,
stinging wide eyes
and parching opened throats
from which rose the anguished lament:
In this cataclysmic moment,
the foundations of the world have shifted
and the fundamental nature of our existence
is forever changed!
And my tears flowed,
mingling with bitter rivers cried
by a multitude of fellow Americans,
because it was true…
…and because it wasn’t.
I wept with those who no longer felt secure
in the nation they called their home,
and with those who had never for one moment
labored under that illusion…
…with the parents who suddenly sensed
that the world was a treacherous place
into which to send beloved children
and with those who had long known
without any shadow of doubt
that this was the case…
…with those just now being exposed to the notion
that they might be targeted
not for who they had chosen individually to become
but for a collective identity
they’d been handed at their birth
and with those whose backs bore generations of scars
attesting to this terrorizing truth…
And as I wept,
if the privileged would ever know
what a luxury it was
to be utterly shocked
when tragedy struck.
* Two notes: 1) This reflection represents only one strand of my response to an incredibly complicated set of events and realities related to 9/11—much more could be written about the ensuing backlash against American Muslims, the Iraq War, etc. 2) Nothing I say here is meant to imply that Americans who experienced various forms of terror prior to 9/11 were not deeply grieved by what happened on that day, or that their love for America is any less real or true than that of those who may have a “simpler” experience of our nation.