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Jamie Kim / Gavel Media

On American 'Unification' After Tragedy

“Never Forget” was echoed in many sentiments (and Instagram stories) as the country recognized the 20th anniversary of 9/11. George Bush, who was president at the time of the attack, and current president Joe Biden, spoke at Ground Zero to call for unity among the American people. 

Biden exclaimed that America’s “greatest strength” was its unity, and that tragedies like 9/11 cause him to realize this. It is evident from the still grieving and somber crowd present that America has never forgotten what took place that day, nor should it. But has the country misremembered? 

The “true sense of national unity” that President Biden looks back on was, to be sure, present among many American people. The collective fear and emotional turmoil that both the state of New York, as well as the country as a whole, endured cannot be overstated. Neither can the sense of shared identity and patriotism that occurred during 9/11’s aftermath. But while some Americans huddled together, others were made to feel unwelcome in their own home. 

The people of the United States were terrified after September 11th and needed someone to blame. Many people found their scapegoat within the Muslim community. From 2000 to 2001, hate crimes against Muslims rose 1617%. Those who practiced the Islamic faith became fearful for their lives, and now, twenty years later, pass this fear along to their children. America’s 

alleged greatest strength is wrought with racism and hatred; while some were unified, others were left in the divide. Garret Graff, journalist and author of an oral history of 9/11, spoke on this phenomenon, explaining, “the fact that we reacted so emotionally to that day, and chose to let ourselves be driven by that fear, is key to understanding sort of everything that the US got wrong.”

Twenty years after September 11th, those who were not alive to experience the tragedy are given keen insight into how strongly the ideas that the US “got wrong” still reside within millions of Americans. The COVID-19 pandemic gave way to extreme anti-Asian sentiments as, feeling the disease closing in and looking for a physical being to point their fingers at, terrified people chose to direct their anger and ignorance at a minority group. Sound familiar? 

BBC News recently wrote an article detailing just how prevalent crimes against the Asian community became during this pandemic. The work references a Filipino-American man who was disfigured with a boxcutter and the tragic shootings that took place in Atlanta this past March. If this is the unity that President Biden calls for, then he need not look any further. That misplaced, uninformed pride has never left our nation. 

While I am trying to compare the United State’s controversial reactions to tragedy, I am not trying to squeeze the attack on 9/11 and the still raging pandemic into some sort of mismatched venn diagram. The fall of the twin towers was a calculated, avoidable tragedy of immeasurable proportions. The coronavirus, however, was not planned and could have been better contained if world leaders and citizens alike had taken the epidemic more seriously. The argument that both 9/11 and the pandemic are terrorist attacks on the United States cannot be further from the truth. Unfortunately, however, their aftermaths are eerily alike.

In this vein, Graff correctly aligns the reactions of some Americans to 9/11 with the continued racism that often accompanies tragedies in our nation. The extreme hate that the Asian community has received as a result of the virus is despicable and tragic, and the same can be said for the countless Islamic people who faced and still continue to face prejudice as a result of September 11th. If America continues to gloss over its reaction, then this cycle will be allowed to continue. The cooperation and harmony that has been referenced in relation to 9/11 cannot be allowed to stand on its own, away from the condemnation it placed upon innocent parties. America and other countries were driven by fear and hopelessness into the absolute worst parts of themselves and although this cannot be undone it can, at the very least, be acknowledged. 

The aftermaths of both these tragedies have led many to question whether America is so fractured that nothing other than extreme tragedy can bring us together. And even in this unity that our country manages to scrounge up, others are still repeatedly excluded, used as the target of hate and misplaced blame. Twenty years have come and gone since September 11th, 2001 and while many things have changed, America’s false sense of unification has not. That specific day will never be forgotten, though the months and years following are buried deep in the American consciousness.

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