The families and stories of the firefighters always strike me as the most powerful and moving among the thousands of remembrances one hears during the annual commemoration of the 9/11 terror attack against the United States in 2001. I was in Boston on Sunday this week on the fifteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attack, just as I was on that September day in 2001, so the local and national commemorations were especially poignant this year.
The firefighters’ tales are especially moving because they chose to enter into the burning towers to save their fellow citizens; many died or were badly injured, or emotionally scarred for life. Their courage and their commitment to their duty as firefighters are rightly remember, celebrated, and held up as examples for young people to follow as they now also move into adulthood and full citizenship.
Thousands of others in the twin towers and the other attack sites died because they were innocent victims of a terror attack, or, like the firefighters, they were police officers, emergency rescue crews, nurses and doctors, municipal officials, and others who were not struck down by the assault itself, but by the events that followed their decision to go in and rescue people in danger.
Consequently, Sept. 11 has now been designated as a National Day of Service and Remembrance in the United States, both keeping alive our collective respect and appreciation for those who died that day, and also inspiring young men and women to emulate the tradition of service to others that was so evident then. The solemn ceremonies around the United States—from the president, to local post office clerks in small towns, and truck drivers on forlorn rural highways—capture many dimensions at once: incalculable grief for the death of loved family members, friends, colleagues, and thousands of other innocent civilians, destruction on a monumental scale, and heroism and humanity in their most extreme forms. Those powerful emotions are aptly captured in the solemnity and symbolism of the commemorations, full of violin music, slow-ringing bells, recitations of the dead whose names are engraved on stone walls but who also remain alive in millions of hearts, and American flags everywhere, thousands and thousands of American flags—some only tiny lapel pins, others the size of an entire football field.
The commemorations mark grief and anger at the attacks themselves, but also a patriotic affirmation of the collective American determination not to succumb to the fear that the terrorists wish to inject into this society. So the United States—like France, Great Britain, Spain, and every other country in the world that has been attacked by terrorists—affirms its core values, and pledges to protect them and keep putting them into practice every day.
For fifteen years, this has been an annual routine that Americans perform with deep, heartfelt, overwhelming emotion. It is a reminder of the enormous moral power of the American way of life and system, the character its people, and the universal need for human nature to affirm life over death, light over darkness, and hope over fear.
All these things we see in the American spirit every day, in so many ways, and always on Sept. 11 in our time. Yet there remains a darkness that surrounds the 9/11 commemorations and wider dimensions of the United States, which I felt on the day of the attacks, and felt again last Sunday, 15 years later. It is a deep and enigmatic streak that defines the United States as sharply as the heroism and humanity that are so evident in all other corners of life here: it is that the United States as a country broadly has never found its comfortable place in the world, or its interactions with the rest of the countries and peoples of the world. The 9/11 attacks aggravated that legacy, and the past 15 years have reconfirmed it repeatedly.
At around ten a.m. on September 11, 2001, an hour after the attacks started, a colleague in the group of fellows at Harvard with whom I spent that year asked me: What do you think this means?
I replied instantly: It will test whether the United States enters modern world history as a nation among many others that has suffered a trauma and learns to connect with the world in a mutually beneficial way, or stays outside of modern world history as a self-appointed exceptional power that stands above the rest of the people of the world in terms of values, power, and accountability.
The decision the United States has taken in response to the 9/11 attacks have left it with a reckless, violent, wasteful, and tragic recent legacy. This has been due heavily to responding to 9/11 with an emphasis on using military power, bolstering and partnering with dictatorial regimes in the Arab-Asian region, and seeing itself above the law of the world in the use of drone attacks, invading countries, torture, and regime change initiatives, among many other of its routine policies.
So remembering 9/11 every year reminds us of the many reasons that make the United States so admirable, alongside its long-running flaw as an awkward, self-designated, outsider in the global order of nations, often unsure of how to engage with the world beyond the realms of bombs, sanctions, and consumer exports. This means the American people are likely to continue to endure many of the uncomfortable realities they have experienced in the past 15 years, until they decide to join modern history rather than to remain above it as a judge, jury, and drone operator. This is the wider tragedy of the past 15 years, which demands of all of us greater efforts to affirm the goodness and equal rights of all people, rather than perpetuate the dangerous and arrogant fantasy of any self-appointed greatest nation on earth.
Rami G. Khouri is a senior fellow at the American University of Beirut and the Harvard Kennedy School. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.
Copyright ©2016 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global