I was eight on Sept. 11, 2001, just old enough to remember the day’s events with perfect clarity. School authorities had decided we were still too young to be told what happened. They left that difficult task to the horrifying sounds and images—towers falling, dust rising, flames and last phone calls—that forever seared the attacks into our collective memory.
The adults seemed scared, and this scared me. When my father came to pick me up after an early release, he nervously cleared his throat and asked if they had told me. Told me what?
I quickly gained a new vocabulary, a set of grave phrases uttered on television and whispered between classes. “Al Qaeda,” “homeland security,” “axis of evil” … the language seemed foreboding, pregnant with threats. I wondered what to call my homeland. My thick accent, stinky lunchbox, embarrassing cultural cluelessness—all easily betrayed me as an immigrant. America was a glass fortress, and I stood peering in from the outside.
An older student reminded me of my status the next morning. “Sand n***er,” he said on the bus, pointing at me. His face was twisted with loathing. “Go home.” I cried in a bathroom stall and did not tell my parents. I sensed the weight of their anxiety, perched on the edge of a confused and wounded society unfamiliar to them. I did not want to add to it.
The boy’s hatred provided me my earliest political education. Victimhood’s cruel memory so often numbs us to the cruelty of its response. I grew up alongside a post-9/11 America—learning its idiom, developing a politics, living in communities—incapable of forgetting the glass fortress, its long and lonely shadows.
“Sand n***er” of course hurt badly, but it was simple childish savagery, based on a simple childish analysis of the world. Us—the good, the victims—versus them—the evil, subhuman. A perceptive teacher picked up on the situation, and the boy was reprimanded. I got over it.
But watching this child’s analysis of the world take root in our adult politics has been painfully impossible to get over. Here we have no grownups to deepen our human compassion, few reminders of our own victims’ anguish. There is only the brute impulse for violent fury and an unparalleled arsenal to unleash it on the world. The flag is a blindfold America’s leaders wrap over its people’s eyes, a blanket to hide the bodies piling in its name.
About five hours after the towers fell, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld knew the blindfold was tied tight. “Go massive …” he told an aide, “sweep it all up. Things related and not.” His was a long-brewing plan for regime change in Iraq that promised, above all, fat pockets of new oil and military spending.
Around 125,000 Iraqi civilians, maybe more, have died for this vision. The chemical siege of Fallujah left behind a cancer epidemic and a rate of congenital malformations 14 times that of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the atomic bombs. These are, Dahr Jamail reports, “really horrific, nightmarish types of birth defects”: two-headed babies, cyclops babies, babies born with organs outside of their bodies. The forgotten “red line” of their blood stains the rhetoric around Syria. Liberated Iraq’s regime today relies on mass executions and hideous forms of torture— repeated rapes, deprivation of food and water, genital mutilation—as the criminal justice modus operandi. In doing so, it has opted to continue the “dirty war” tactics top Pentagon officials established during the occupation.
To Pakistan, too, came the sweep. Children there “scream in terror when they hear the sound of a drone,” and kids wounded in attacks often become too traumatized to return to school, forced to abandon hopes of future careers. Congress does not hear their cries, nor those of the Guantánamo Bay prisoners—force-fed with piercing nasal tubes, a form of torture—on hunger strike simply to be charged with crimes.
What makes their suffering any different from ours? Does birthplace affect humanness? If not, how can we accept Obama’s tears in the wake of the Newtown massacre, which left 20 children dead, when no tears—not so much as a single word—were spared for the 21 children killed in his own shelling of al-Majalah, Yemen? Which system of ethics justifies the killing of more than 200 children via remote control?
Today’s anniversary offers a chance to use our memory of collective grief as grounds for the expansion of empathy rather than empire. Since 9/11, the U.S. has proven itself capable of only the latter, quadrupling its covert operations budget to police most of the world’s countries instead of asking why it is that so many wish to bring us violence. The paranoia is both global and local, embodied in a “post-Constitutional” U.S. surveillance regime that disproportionately victimizes them, so commonly brown and foreign as an unfortunate fact of birth.
A child’s maturity is marked by the willingness to understand and cooperate with other human beings. Our stunted and infantile political culture refuses both these options, relying instead on the miserable adult oxymorons of spying, bombing and occupying for peace. Maybe we can take this of all days as a reminder that justice is never served through atrocity.
Prashanth Kamalakanthan is a Trinity senior. His column runs every other Wednesday. Send Prashanth a message on Twitter @pkinbrief.