“Never Forget” was echoed in many sentiments (and Instagram stories) two weeks ago 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 a ceremony commencing at Ground Zero. Both Biden and Bush called for unity among the American people, with Biden exclaiming that tragedies such as 9/11 have caused him to realize that America’s “greatest strength” was its unity. It is evident from the 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 – and the country as a whole – endured cannot be overstated. The sense of shared identity and patriotism that occurred during 9/11’s aftermath also cannot be overlooked, as thousands came together in support of the people who lost their lives and those who still today cope with the lingering effects that came with being so close to Ground Zero.
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 11 and needed someone to blame. Many people found a scapegoat with 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 are unified, others are 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 11, 2001, those who were not alive to experience or remember the tragedy were given keen insight into how strongly the ideas that the United States “got wrong” still reside within millions of Americans. The COVID-19 pandemic gave way to extreme anti-Asian sentiments for some populations. 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 because that misplaced, uninformed pride has never left our nation.
While I am trying to compare the United States' 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, in my mind, be further from the truth. Unfortunately, their aftermaths are eerily alike.
America and other countries were driven by fear and hopelessness into the absolute worst parts of themselves. 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 9/11. If America, even while showing reverence to that horrific day, 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 reside on its own, away from the condemnation it placed upon innocent parties. We have to learn that being afraid does not give anyone the right to resort to violence or extreme bias toward one group of people.
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 and abused, used as the target of hate and misplaced blame. Twenty years have come and gone since September 11, 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 have readily been buried deep in the American consciousness.