No, we did not respond “calmly” to 9/11

Like many, I have vivid memories of 9/11. I was a junior in college, and I had a statistics test that I wasn’t nuts about taking. But, the president of our college insisted that life should go on as normal (a profoundly “Texas” attitude). I recall sitting down to take my test, and noticing that the student next to me was crying. I asked her if she was alright, and she shook her head. “I’m from New York, and I can’t get ahold of my parents. I call their phones and all I get is a busy signal.” It would be three days before she heard that they were both alive and unharmed. I recall sitting outside that afternoon and thinking about how strangely quiet it was with no planes in the sky (and almost no traffic on the nearby freeway). I remember being scared. I remember being confused. And I remember being angry.

We have reached the point where 9/11 has become part of the mythological fabric of our nation’s story. As such, we should expect that the story of that day will begin to take on more and more “legendary” qualities. We will emphasize some aspects and erase others. We will find ways of narrating events in a way that allows us to maintain the myth of our collective innocence. “We were needlessly attacked! We did nothing to provoke this! They hate us because of our freedoms!”

As a case in point: this morning, Paul Krugman tweeted about how “calmly” Americans took 9/11. “Notably,” he writes, “there wasn’t a mass outbreak of anti-Muslim sentiment and violence, which could all too easily have happened. And while GW Bush was a terrible president, to his credit he tried to calm prejudice, not feed it.” See for yourself.

With all due respect, this is some serious, unadulterated bullshit.

We did not respond “calmly” to 9/11. 2,977 American citizens were killed on 9/11. Roughly 180,000 Iraqi citizens have been killed as the direct result of US military action since 2003. That doesn’t include the thousands of soldiers who were killed or permanently injured in conflict. Don’t tell me that we we responded “calmly.”

I agree with Krugman that W was a terrible president, but the notion that he was a calming presence during the post-9/11 years is simply not true. He did everything in his power to stoke the fires of fear. And we stood by while he ignited a 20-year war in the middle east. None of this can or should be described as an attempt to “calm” prejudice. And there were plenty of instances of anti-Muslim violence (see this data from the Pew Research Center).

I am a college professor, so the majority of my interactions on a day-to-day basis are with students between the ages of 18 and 22. Most of them do not remember 9/11 because they were too young (or not born yet). But when you ask them what happened on 9/11, they usually can tell you at least some of the details without much hesitation. Most of those details are at least partly accurate. Many are not. As we move further away from events in the past, it is only natural that those events will change in our collective memory. I will be genuinely curious to see how the contours of my students’ retellings change over the next few years.

The notion that 9/11 was a turning point in our nation’s history is indisputable. “Our” world changed on that day, and it changed in profound ways. But to frame our response to those events as one in which we rose up and became our best selves is, at best, an exercise in delusion. The anti-Muslim rhetoric that began to grow in the wake of 9/11 was fueled and fanned by our leaders. Less than 10 years after 9/11, President Barack Obama was suspected of being a “secret” Muslim by racists across the country. Our current president built his entire political career on that foundation. These things didn’t just materialize; they have a history.

So by all means, let’s remember 9/11. But when we do, let’s please remember the whole story.

Ph.D. in Christian Origins, Associate Prof. of Religion @FerrumCollege. Thoughts on Early Christianity, religion in the US, politics, and teaching.