When the first World Trade Center tower collapsed, my father called me from his office in Connecticut, minutes before the phone systems went dead. He wanted to know if I was okay at home and asked if I knew where my older sister was. He couldn’t reach her at her law office downtown. He was concerned and scared. “She had a court hearing in Brooklyn this morning. She’s safe Dad,” I remember telling him as I could smell and see the smoke from across the bridge. That conversation is clear as water because it was the first time I ever heard him say, “Thank you.”
Like me, many reading this post know exactly where they were and who they spoke to on September 11, 2001 to let them know they were safe.
As we remember the 2,977 people who were not able to make that call, there are a multitude of books, podcasts, tweets, documentaries and sites on how America and Americans have been shaped by 9/11, and more are on the way.
What have we learned since then? The postmortem question is the traditional way to approach anniversaries but pales in comparison to our own memories.
I remember that late afternoon on the corner of Flatbush and Bergen in Park Slope of the slow walk home from the World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan to Brooklyn. Thousands in the streets, ash-covered zombie faces, ripped skirts, bloody cuts, blank stares, the walking dead. I remember the world was ending. I remember the endless speeches that the "War on Terror" was to make the world a safer place, guaranteed with an exclamation point.
Twenty years ago, Iraq was a threat. Since then, we’ve added Russia and China to the list and perhaps Afghanistan, again, at the rate in which Biden promises to retaliate.
I don’t have an advanced degree from Harvard Kennedy School of Government, but I think it is safe to say we aren’t heading in the right direction.
We’ve learned to live with violence as the answer to violence. (And, the irony is not lost on me that the government’s praise of MLK’s nonviolent approach to domestic terrorism is limited in theory and practice.) We’ve even learned to live with the transparency that our government is going around the world killing people based on intelligence reports. (I remember President Obama getting a round of applause during the first presidential debates after stating that Democratic rule of law and justice doesn’t just apply to Americans.)
Yet and still, the sobering reality is that 20 years of circular terror hasn’t made me feel safer? What about you?
The wait and see approach to see if things play out differently in the next two decades is a luxury we don’t have amidst the dysfunctional global mess of COVID and its variants. Don’t wait for the government to reset its priorities. Knock on the neighbors door and get to gettin'. As for me, I am working in nine post-conflict countries in Africa to hold the private sector accountable to ending poverty as it is deeply intertwined with civil unrest and armed conflict.
There’s a short window in the next couple of years to reverse descension into chaos. We owe it to our children and our children’s children to try to design a world with new priorities. I believe Maya Angelou got it right when she said: “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Let’s make the world feel safe again.