Reflection on the 20th anniversary of 9/11

Photo by Anthony Fomin

When I think about 9/11, the first thing I recall are other terrorist acts that happened years earlier on the other side of the world that you’ve likely never heard of. I was living in and attending high school in Nairobi, Kenya when on August 7, 1998 the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania were simultaneously bombed, killing hundreds, including 12 Americans, one of whom I went to high school with. Al-Qaeda was responsible. It was these senseless acts three years before 9/11 that led directly to me studying religion with a focus on Islam. I needed to make sense of why someone I knew was killed in a bombing and try to begin to understand the motivation behind it. If religion played some role in that motivation, I had to investigate.

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After Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government removed over 100,000 Japanese and Japanese-American citizens from the West Coast and transported them to internment camps, (including Camp Amache here in Colorado) for the duration of World War II. Following 9/11, Muslim-Americans (and those who were mistaken for being Muslims, especially Sikhs) report experiencing greater degrees of government surveillance, as well as emotional and physical abuse, whether at work, school, or anywhere in public.

After the embassy bombing in 1998, the U.S. military bombed a pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum, Sudan, as well as al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, as part of Operation Infinite Reach. I remember telling my friend that I thought this was good; this was what “they” deserved for attacking “us.” My friend, whose mother was gravely injured in the Nairobi bombing and had every reason to be angry, disagreed. “This isn’t going to make anything better,” he told me.

I have thought about that moment for a long time. What could I do? Raised on the typical 1980s diet of G.I. Joe cartoons, I thought about enlisting. Instead, I decided to educate myself about religion, that ill-defined but undoubtedly powerful force that shapes so many of our social institutions around the world. I learned that the world is much more nuanced than I thought, than I wanted it to be. I have been teaching college students since 2005 and what has amazed me again and again is the potential all my students exhibit to reach beyond their own life experience to understand those different from them. 

One could write at length about the victims, the innocent civilians who died in the 9/11 attacks as well as our subsequent wars overseas. So many lives were lost and many more were affected. The first responders who now suffer from physical and mental health issues as a result of their bravery. The survivors who witnessed the unthinkable. The family and friends of the victims. And so many more.

But the victims over the past 20 years are everywhere. The victims include the dead and our veterans who were fortunate enough to return home but who often do so bearing scars we cannot see. The greatest privilege of my professional life is to educate students — a process that often leads to learning a great deal from them. Often, those learnings are thoughts they are not sharing with friends and family.

When I taught Arabic language courses, I had many veterans of both Iraq (where Arabic is spoken) and Afghanistan (where it is not). One student had spent months terrified of dying from a roadside bomb while defending a checkpoint in Iraq called “Hurriya.” He was shocked to learn that this word meant “freedom” in Arabic. “Someone could have told me that,” he said on the day when we covered this basic vocabulary word.

There was the young woman who arrived to class early everyday so she could grab the seat in the back corner of the room. She spoke little, struggled to maintain eye contact, and generally seemed to be on the verge of breaking down. I didn’t understand why until the day she gave a presentation on her service as a military police officer in Baghdad, concluding with a picture of her in uniform in front of Abu Ghraib prison. Another student, who had been a medic, wrote poetry about the time he attempted to save the life of an Iraqi child wounded in an attack on his unit, ultimately failing. Perhaps the most haunting for me as a teacher was reading another student’s short essay after learning the verb conjugation for the past tense: “I feel sad when I think about my friends who died in Afghanistan.”

In my World Religions courses (pre-pandemic) I would ask students to visit religious sites (temples, churches, mosques, etc.) from traditions that were different from their own. One student who had served in Afghanistan reported that visiting a mosque in Boulder was at painful odds with his memories of being on patrol, remembering that he didn’t know anything about mosques but that he was never, ever supposed to go inside one. The dissonance between what he experienced while deployed on the one hand and meeting a group of Muslims here in Colorado on the other, was so much that he had to run outside and vomit. He told me, “Everyone at this mosque was so welcoming. But over there… I don’t know how to make sense of this.”

What jumped out at me about these veterans is that they were processing their difficult experiences through educating themselves. This is admirable on many accounts, but it also raised questions. Is this psychological cost one that they had to bear? What can our nation do for our young people instead of sending them into these types of situations?

Today the Taliban is back in power. As a scholar I can tell you incontrovertibly that the Taliban and their interpretation of Islamic law represent not only a tiny minority of Muslims in the modern era, but also within the entire 1,400-year history of Islam. They are an off-shoot of the Sunni Deobundi movement founded in India in response to British colonization.

The world is watching to see what they do with their second attempt at governing Afghanistan. We cannot make the mistake of connecting them to other Muslim communities, any more than we can link the KKK to the many Christian denominations here in the U.S. and around the world. 

If this 20th anniversary of 9/11 is about any one thing, let it be about self-reflection and honest inquiry. Take the time to investigate the life experiences of those who are different from you. If you want others to have empathy for your struggles, you need to build sincere empathy for theirs. The Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements are critical examples of our fellow Americans speaking out on longstanding injustices. As I tell my students, questions are more important than answers. True answers result from a practice of inquiry. We all need more practice.

Patrick J. D’Silva, PhD, is an instructor in the UCCS Department of Philosophy.