Nineteen years ago, I was on the back of a motorcycle. We had just crossed into Canada and were heading across Ontario on the second day of our vacation. We had kind of set a trajectory for the trip but, with the exception of visiting the Air Force Museum in Dayton OH, nothing was really defined. Temporarily there were no constraints and cares and we were free to go wherever we wanted.
It was a cool, clear morning and the first thing we decided, after about an hour, was to get a cup of coffee. We walked into the sales room of a garage where we had topped off the gas tank only to find all eyes glued to a television set. “Have you seen this?” the owner demanded. I thought he was watching an action thriller and was confused by the urgency of his voice. Over and over the television repeated the image of a plane flying into the side of a building. It was, of course, September 11th, 2001.
The rest of that trip, like much of what has happened in the United States since, stemmed from that horrific act of violence. The doors to the United States slammed shut behind us and we could not go home. When we did manage to reenter the country, it was to a landscape swathed in red, white and blue and a populace that was shocked and wary. I felt a cocktail of emotions riding on the back of the bike, watching the beauty of the land as we rolled through it, while the radio newscasts transmitted into our helmets cocooned me with the horror that was unfolding.
Mostly, I was afraid for the little children in our family. At that point, the next generation of children had just started to be born. There were two then, still toddlers and so terribly vulnerable. What was in store for them, I wondered. Would we soon be at war? Would more violence visit our shores?
That generation is now in college and a new baby, the first of yet another generation, has been born. The answer to all of my questions have been revealed. Yes, we did go to war and we are still at it. The toddlers playing in my yard back then have never known a country at peace. And, yes, violence has erupted again and again, killing and maiming the innocent here and abroad. Hatred breeds hatred and it is hard to imagine how our leaders thought that destroying cities and killing families in Muslim and Arab countries would “win the hearts and minds” of their peoples.
We count our own dead. We know that about 7,000 of our own military personnel have died in the endless war. And we know, at least intuitively, the impact that trauma of war has had on our citizens—the families of soldiers who have been killed or who suffered life-changing injuries to body or mind, are just as much casualties of war, as the warriors.
But that is the tip of the iceberg. It is difficult to find accurate estimates of the impact on the countries we invaded in the name of freedom. A 2018 Cost of War study by Brown University estimated at that time that our interventions in three countries, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, had violently killed 480,000 people, more than 244,000 of them civilians. And that did not take into consideration the indirect deaths, those caused by destabilization of the region, disease, displacement and the loss of infrastructure. Those deaths are thought to run into the millions.
The report mined various sources for data spanning a period from October 2001 to October 2018, but despite their horrific findings, the authors conjectured that the figures just “scratched the surface.”
That was two years ago and still the chaos continues. And what have we gained? When George W. Bush marched us off to war against Iraq, a country with a heinous dictator but no discernible connection to 9/11, we were supposedly on a quest to wipe out Al Queda and capture and punish Osama bin Laden. As George would say, “Mission accomplished.” Al Queda is much weakened and bin Laden is dead, but we fight on, the wars having spawned an expanding number of even more extreme terrorist groups.
This week signs went up in my hometown urging us to “Never Forget.” On 9/11, one of our churches will hold a 24-hour vigil, with volunteers endlessly reading the names of those killed in the terrorist attacks of that day. A huge American flag will hang from the extended aerial ladder of a firetruck, and a marquee will provide cover for a symbolic casket, where residents can sit and meditate or pray. It will all be very somber and reverential.
But I question the message. Do we by our insistence of remembering, just perpetuate the hate?
Should we not remember with tenderness and sorrow those who were lost but at the same time try to set aside our outrage? Should we not do less remembering and do more thinking?