I cried today. Hot, silent tears rolled uncontrollably down my cheeks on this 20th anniversary of the attack on 9/11.
I cried as I looked at the pictures from that day. Frightened and confused people running for their lives from the destruction, or standing in confusion over what was happening. Images of exploding buildings, unnamed people falling through space, dust and ash and blood-covered witnesses all broke my heart again.
I cried as I read the stories of first responders. Women and men who said goodbye to their families, not knowing if they’d ever see them again, and rushed into the fire, the debris, and the chaos to help and to save others. The stories of their sacrifices, and the terrible price so many paid in the years to come with cancer and other illnesses, choked the breath out of me. The reminder and witness of their courage and sacrifice remaining the only gift of that day.
I cried listening to H.E.R. as she sang “Hallelujah” with the NYC skyline in the background looking clean and bright, so different from that terrible day 20 years ago. Leonard Cohen’s haunting words of loss and pain and disillusionment but that are then still, and always, answered by Hallelujah. The Hallelujah that we seem to have lost.
I cried because I have realized, all these years later, that Al-Qaeda won.
2001 was such a year of hope. A new century had just begun and the future had never looked brighter, or at least we thought. The internet was new, there was no Facebook or Twitter, and technology looked like it was going to usher us all into a new age of prosperity and unity. There were no wars to speak of other than “minor conflicts” and hotspots in various distant corners of the world, but none that rose to the top of our minds.
The economy was strong. The EU, G8, and even the UN were working together on many of the problems that did face us. The future looked brighter than it ever had to so many and our eyes were raised to see the shining horizon before us. But we failed to see the pain and rot below us that was festering and growing in the dark corners of our world.
Hatred, bred over decades, centuries, and millennia, still burned hot but hidden. The arrogance of the powerful blinded them, and us, to the widening gaps between the grand vision and the day-to-day reality for far too many around the world. Anger was slowly stoked in quiet corners of places whose names we had never heard and by those whose faces we had never seen. Fear bred resentment, resentment bred hate, and hate bred a lust for revenge—for righteous justice to be rained down on the powerful and mighty. Revenge for all that had been stolen or denied for so long.
We didn’t see it. We couldn’t see it for we were too busy building and celebrating our beautiful dreams.
On September 11th, 2001 Al-Qaeda executed a plan they had been building for years. Their intent was to destroy America and with it the rest of the western world. They wanted to bring down the most powerful nation the world had ever seen with four small attacks lead by only 19 fanatics ready to die. A crazy goal, we thought, and one we quickly put down.
The initial attacks succeeded. Thousands of innocent lives were lost, panic ensued, and the whole world came to a stop. For a short while. Then the country rallied, the world came together as one to succor the wounded and hunt the attackers. It felt glorious at the moment as we all felt the power of love working together. We will get past this, we vowed; we will never forget this day and never let it happen again. And we haven’t.
Buildings were rebuilt, new laws and enforcement procedures were put in place, and an unrelenting hunt for the perpetrators was undertaken. They were found, captured, and killed or locked up without trials. The country that had housed them was invaded and subjugated; a puppet regime was installed to show our “justice” and democracy. Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind it all, was finally found and executed by a team of US Seals while our president watched anxiously. We had finally won!
But we didn’t see the real damage that attack had created. In addition to the love that was born, and that lived for such a brief time, so too was a new hatred born. The Al-Qaeda planners and strategists had seen the pain within the mighty west, had seen the fear that was secretly growing in the hearts of so many in the west of a new world order that they didn’t participate in. It was that wound, that pain, that they really sought to touch and enflame. And they did.
The lasting result of that attack was not the “coming together” and the unity; it was (and still is) the fear and paranoia that infects the whole world. That paranoia which has lead to evermore restrictive laws and ever tighter surveillance by governments around the world. Everyone and everything that is “different from us” is now considered a threat and a thing to be feared. A thing to be destroyed.
All those who look different than I do, who speak differently than I do, or believe differently than I do are now the stuff of childhood nightmares. And to those nightmares, fear has become our first response, and violence our second. We no longer welcome the different with curiosity and love; we kill it. This evil chorus, fed by social media and profit-hungry networks, continues to grow every day in the United States and around the world.
We all see it. Differences can seemingly no longer be discussed calmly and rationally as every disagreement has come to be seen as an assault on me personally and must be attacked as if my very life depended on it. Truth has become slippery, at best, and often just outright ignored as alternate “facts” are paraded for all to see. Many bemoan this sorry state we have come to. Wringing our hands in dismay and sadness, we wonder how this could have possibly happened and what can we do to stop it. But we find no answers to this age-old pandemic of fear and hate which has no vaccine.
I remember the children’s story about the lion with a thorn in its paw. The mightiest of animals, the king of the jungle, reduced to impotence from an almost invisible thorn. In the story, a wandering monk, a saint, comes and risks his life to remove the thorn, receiving the gratitude of the mighty beast. Had it not been removed, the small wound would have surely festered and eventually killed this once proud king—a seemingly insignificant wound ending his reign.
I cried because I finally realized that Al-Qaeda had won. The thorn they placed in our paw has not been removed and the infection has now spread to the whole beast whose very existence is now threatened. Their long game strategy had succeeded, and our short-term wins have come to mean nothing.
Perhaps it is not over, and maybe we can heal the beast. But it will take a saint to do it. It will need all of us to put ourselves at risk to pull the thorn. We must let go of the fear we carry, the anger we carry, and the resentment we carry. We must reach out to that which we fear and pull the thorn from our own paw. Otherwise, Al-Qaeda wins.