September 11th is a wound that has closed but never really healed. It aches and itches and reminds us with bleak regularity of the trauma that etched it onto our national body. And, for many, it reminds us of the people who did it to us.
Terrorists. Radical Islamic groups. Extremists. The works paint a portrait of a group of men with sweeping strokes, evoking the exotic, the different, and the Other. They hurt us, because they hate us, and that is enough.
Or, at least, it was for my father. In 1993, a group of men (in many ways like those who hijacked four planes eight years later) bombed a parking garage under the very towers that later fell. They were not nearly as successful in their efforts as those that came after them: only six people died that February afternoon; one of them was my uncle, my father’s little brother.
I don’t really remember his death, or the events that came after. I recall his face as he lay in his coffin, looking still and waxy and not quite right. I remember being confused by the mechanics of death, and that people could die and then just… stop. But I was young, and time passed, and I grew up without an uncle, or the cousins that might have followed. I met Muslim classmates, made Muslim friends, and never thought of the men who had killed one of my own.
But then it happened again, and so much worse: not for us, because every tragedy is the end of the world for those it happens to, but for the nation to which we belonged. I remember when the towers fell, and even then the death was too much for me to really comprehend. All I could think was how they must have destroyed the memorial that commemorated my uncle and the other victims, a marble fountain at the base of the towers that was supposed to record their names for the rest of time.
Over the next few weeks, my father was quiet. We didn’t really talk about what had happened, because this time, our family was safe, and the news did the talking for us. But one evening, my father spoke, cursing as the images of the radicals who had carried out the attack flashed across the screen. He railed, briefly, against the Muslims who had done this, and expounded on what the United States should do to them in return.
I was appalled, and defended my friends. They weren’t terrorists, and these men didn’t speak for them. I asked what my father had against all Muslims. He replied, simply, “They killed my brother.”
And that was that.
Maybe it is because I was so young when my uncle died, and the fog that covers much of my early years covers my memory of him, too. But I don’t feel the way my father did, and I never have. Even with respect to the men that really did kill my uncle, I wonder instead what drove them to that act of terrible violence. They had hoped to bring both towers down, and to kill nearly a quarter-million people in the process. How desperate, how cruel and comfortless must a life be before that kind of decision seems right?
These men are still alive, most serving their more-than-life sentences at a supermax prison in Colorado. I doubt I will ever see or speak to them; I feel no need for closure, nor any need to forgive them. What’s done is done. Even if they feel remorse for what happened twenty-five years ago, it won’t undo the past. I am sorry that their lives drove them to commit these acts, and sorry that people died because of it.
But I do not share my father’s views on punishment and retribution, nor his belief that all Muslims were to blame in his brother’s death. Terrorism is a dreadful act perpetrated by a few, desperate individuals who rally against a perceived common enemy. It is not the creed of any faith that drives it, and it is not the fault of any community when some of its members betray its core values for their own ends. And when the commemoration of national grief is used to justify xenophobia, isolationism, separatism, and eternal war, we dishonor the memories of those who died by perpetrating further senseless violence in their names, and by creating a new generation of desperate, comfortless men willing to take lives even at the cost of their own.
So, yes: Never forget. But remember what and why we remember.