The tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks snuck up on me. For one thing, we’re still calling them the September 11th attacks, as if it happened within the calendar year and all we need is the day and month for reference. Like many far more eloquent writers have said this week, the attacks radically changed my life in ways I never imagined. Here at Evangelical Outpost, to acknowledge the anniversary, we planned to reflect on one of the more difficult commands Christ issued to His followers: love your enemies. I signed up for the slot on September 8th. And I’m still waiting for something profound to say.
As a teacher, my first thought on an issue like this is always for my students. How are they really affected? How do they view this event, and is that view confined by their insulated experiences, or are they able to step outside adolescence and use it to further develop their fledgling worldviews? How can I help them keep asking questions? I teach juniors and seniors, AP US History and AP Government. How can I help them understand something that happened when they were eight years old?
One thing that has always fascinated me about history, and that my students are quick to identify early in the year, is the American tendency to name events in the way we wish those events to be remembered. The death of five rioters in Boston becomes the Boston Massacre; the murder of unarmed men, women and children is the Battle of Wounded Knee. Sometimes history rights itself. To describe the defeat of the Seventh Cavalry, we’ve jettisoned the inaccurate “Custer Massacre” and now refer to it as the Battle of Little Bighorn. But September 11th remains sterilely, elusively, named simply for its date. We haven’t sullied it in its naming, but neither have we identified it, as though we’re still reeling in shock from its existence. Perhaps we are.
We’re used to history. Names, dates, facts to memorize, causes and effects to trace… these are things that we know, things that comfort us as we look into the messy, tragic, violent stories of our past. They simplify things, give us categories to file away the confusion. But we’re too close to this event for a study guide. No wonder we can’t agree on how we should respond to it, even ten years later.
There is nothing sacred about September 11, 2001, no matter how much we wish there was. It was a day of tragedy, a day of injustice, a day of evil. But it was not a day of infallibility. We must examine the events of that day in their historical context. That context is ugly. The terrorists did not hate us for our virtues. If only it were so! The events were the result of a complex history of American interests, Middle Eastern politics, Islamic politicization, and the complicated interaction between the two regions. But that doesn’t fit a neat national narrative, especially in an election year, and it doesn’t make us feel better.
Which brings me back to my students. One thing I’ve noticed about the generation that grew up in the shadow of 9/11 is that we’ve done them a great disservice. We haven’t taught them how to respond to an event like this with anything other than a gut reaction. We feed them soundbytes, condemn those who question our reaction to the attacks or our part in setting the stage for them, and when it’s time to serve a grieving country, we encourage them to buy things to stimulate the economy. We carve out corners of mutual agreement on cable news networks and demonize anyone who disagrees with us as idiotic or unpatriotic, and thus cripple the rising generation to love its own country, much less its enemies.
If there’s anything I’ve learned from studying history, it’s that we are perpetuating a destructive cycle. It’s only when nations look to the global good for the sake of their citizens, rather than jealously guarding a sad national pride, that history moves in the direction of grace rather than the law of the jungle.
And so, all I have to say in remembrance on this somber anniversary, is that I pray we can break that cycle. I see the potential in my classroom, where students raised in a country that builds cathedrals to commerce, not religion, engage in conversation with fellow beings created in the image of God as if that sort of thing is still possible. This country could learn a lot from these teenagers. If it wants to survive and secure the blessings of liberty to itself and its posterity, it must.