America’s (and My) Post 9/11 Loss of Innocence

At age 26, I have now officially lived half of my life pre-9/11 and half post-9/11. On this 13th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001, I have been reflecting on how I experienced that day as a 13 year old.

Sitting in second period Computer Science class, we had easy access to the internet, which normally wouldn’t have happened in school. This meant that another student, browsing his Yahoo homepage, turned around and started to tell students that a building in New York had been hit by a plane. I recall thinking about how that was such a strange and awful accident, and that it must have been a small private aircraft. For the next several hours of school, I remember a vague sense with each passing period that the news we had discovered was worse and worse. My teachers were increasingly uneasy and distracted.

Upon arriving at home, I stood in front of the television in the living room, watching repetitive broadcasts of the two towers falling for what seemed like hours. I remember during that time developing a consciousness of what terrorism was, and starting to understand that there were people who so deeply hated the United States and what they believed our country stood for that they would kill themselves and countless innocent civilians. I wondered how humanity could be so profoundly damaged that this could happen. I wondered how someone could be so angry as to complete such an act.

In the following months and years, the lexicon of the “War On Terror” crept into my vocabulary. Ground Zero. Al Qaeda. Taliban. Homeland Security. This was the first time in my life that I developed a socio-political consciousness. Life became scarier and more uneasy. The eighth grade class trip was canceled. Flying on planes was different. Suddenly, anti-Muslim racism was virulent. Bumper stickers informed me that THESE COLORS DON’T BLEED. We were all PROUD TO BE AN AMERICAN.

Patriotism changed. I used to think that patriotism meant love, pride, and investment. It meant parades on Memorial Day and fireworks on Independence Day. It meant giving to your community, thanking veterans, and holding your hand over your heart. After 9/11, though, as we trudged through the War On Terror, patriotism became fear, anger, and vengeful violence. Love for the United States was warped by insecurity and sadness into violent xenophobia, a national anxiety trademarked with a desire to punish and kill. Within our nationalism was an open wound, an exposed vulnerability that was shielded with the rhetoric of revenge.

By the time “Freedom Fries” came about in 2003, I was increasingly aware that the effects of the 9/11 attacks had not just been in lives or in property, but that the attack on our soil had damaged the American psyche. We were still living in fear, anger, and overcompensating for our emptiness and hurt with a pernicious nationalism that left a bad taste in my mouth. I was left wondering where the United States I knew had gone; the United States that stood with hands outstretched, rather than fists up.  I spent my teen years recoiling from this patriotism (you will never find me singing that awful “Proud to be an American” song, though I am, indeed, proud to be an American citizen). I never felt like patriotism should be violent and forceful, but rather like getting a good long hug from a friend whom you have known for a long time.

In some part, my post 9/11 experience was also part of my experience of growing up and gaining awareness of the brokenness of our world. But I will never lose the feeling that after 9/11, America’s trust was irrevocably damaged, and that it has yet to be repaired. I hope to see a day when our collective definition of “I Love the United States” does not include “…because I hate everyone else out of fear.”