[Author’s note: For competitive debaters and coaches, even though this article does not specifically address debate, I write it for you in application of Isaiah’s thoughts here. While we may be tempted to think that debaters are well-informed, debaters far too often avoid the most painful or polically-charged issues, or choose to be dogmatically ignorant. Remember, you have a duty as budding analysts of values and policies to approach any discussion of world issues as more than just a game. May you study and debate with empathy and diligence, taking your place as societal leaders. –Rebecca]
It’s bizarre to me to think that it was 15 years ago that 4 planes were hijacked and 3000 people died from terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. I was 6 and ½ years old, yet I remember it shockingly well. I remember vividly the menacing face of Usama Bin Laden on the TV screen. I remember where I was standing when I asked my mom what “hijack” meant. I remember watching as tiny figures jumped from the windows of the World Trade Center to their deaths. As the towers collapsed, I remember seeing videos of people running and screaming, covered in dust, blood running down their faces. And I remember grappling with the fact that it was real, not pretend. Real.
I grew up that day. My childhood bubble of imagined safety was shattered forever.
That night and many nights to follow I joined likely hundreds of thousands of American children in having nightmares. My sisters had them too. The World Trade Centers were burning in my backyard. Airplanes were crashing into my roof. Usama Bin Laden was creeping up the basement stairs. Once airspace finally reopened and commercial flights returned to the skies, I remember being terrified every time I heard an airplane.
Today, 21-year-old me looks back on 6-year-old me and remembers something else. I remember trying to empathize. I remember thinking of myself as a woman crashing to her death after jumping from a burning office on the 80th floor. I remember imagining I was on the plane that smashed into the Pentagon, thinking how terrified I would be and what the moment of impact would feel like. I wondered what it would feel like to burn to death.
It hurt to think, but I thought anyway.
All of us did. America united in empathy, painful, terrifying empathy. We didn’t ignore the pain. We embraced it together. And we vowed it would never happen again.
But have we forgotten to empathize and to turn our passions to intelligent solutions?
I taught an educational workshop to teenage policy debaters recently, and they didn’t know that ISIS beheads people. I live on a college campus where (like many college campuses) it is cooler to say “I don’t do politics” than to state a well-thought-out position on foreign affairs. I frequently meet middle-aged adults who hear that I’m getting a political science/international affairs degree and say “I’m glad someone can handle that stuff, because I sure can’t.” Indifference isn’t the only problem. Plenty of dogmatic people share ignorance and roundly criticize career public servants, with nothing more than Facebook memes or a shoddy news article to back up their opinions. Sometimes those who love a “good debate” are the most guilty of this.
When did political indifference and ignorance become acceptable again? What happened to the careful world attention and empathy of 9/11?
It vanished when we started to feel safe again. But we are not safe, even if we have avoided another major terrorist attack on American soil. Ask the families whose sons and daughters and fathers and mothers have been beheaded by ISIS. Ask the hundreds of Nigerian abductees of Boko Haram, raped into oblivion. Ask the 13-year-old American citizen stabbed to death in her bed by a Palestinian terrorist just 11 weeks ago in Jerusalem.
The same sentiments that killed 3000 of our innocent countrymen and women are still killing and raping the innocent. The killing will continue and grow until people study the issues, figure out the truth, and ensure effective policies at home and abroad through voting and government service.
On this day, we honor the firefighters, the policemen, the medical responders, the soldiers, the public servants, and the ordinary civilians who responded heroically when terror struck us 15 years ago. If for nothing else but for the sake of that honor, we have a duty, as Americans, to empathize, to study, and to work out solutions with all our hearts. And most of all, we have a duty to not just looks for the facts that confirm our desires or serve our interests, but rather to seek the truth through diligence.
May we never forget the tragedy that seared our land on September 11, 2016. May we never forget the call we must rise to answer.