Reflecting On 9/11 In A World Of January 6th
When January 6th, 2021 happened, I lived in downtown Sacramento in one of the only residential buildings amidst the spatter of state offices, right off of the I5 exit closest to the State Capitol. The California Capitol was about six blocks away. Last year, it wasn’t uncommon to hear helicopters, chants in the distance, and police sirens all throughout the week and especially on weekends. Many of the area’s biggest George Floyd and Breonna Taylor protests took place close by. There were lots of weird dystopian moments going on in life — after protests around the country started getting met with exceptionally violent resistance, I decided to pack up a bag full of specialty medical supplies — vitamin K arnica cream for heavy bruising, hemostatic bandages, and hemostatic agent powder — and drop it off with some of the anti-police brutality organizers staffing a vigil before the march started. When I cut through an alley, I casually walked past two staffed tanks of National Guardsmen. I remember thinking if you showed me this image, me dressed in all black and wearing a face mask, delivering clotting bandages to protestors, walking past National Guard troops in an alley right by my apartment, I would believe the world had ended.
The surrealness of that moment pales in comparison to the feeling of January 6th and the ways it has colored my views of the world. Just as news came that the mob had breached the Capitol in DC, there was concern that the concurrent Stop The Steal protest outside of the state Capitol blocks away from me would do the same thing. Extremism inspiring extremists. A friend’s husband worked downtown in a state building nearby and he picked me up after his team was sent home. As I got ready to go, stuffing shit in a bag for the preparation of staying there overnight, I realized I was shaking violently and began to weep. I couldn’t describe the feeling then and I struggle to now, but it was like this universal disturbance that sent out violent vibrations touching every facet of my life and the lives of those around me. All consuming. Collective. Intimate. Dreadful. I texted a few older politico friends, ones who had been around my age when 9/11 happened. I asked them, point blank, if this was what 9/11 felt like. The three people I texted all said yes. “Yeah. This is exactly what 9/11 felt like.”
I’ve written several parts of this article at various points of the year and it never felt right, and truly, it hadn’t been my plan to say anything on this day — until our disastrous, brutal, callous exit strategy from Afghanistan happened just so “we’re no longer at war” could be in the headlines on the 20th anniversary of 9/11. In a post-January 6th world, I don’t see the end of a war here — I see a reprieve from one and the beginning of some other destruction we’ll invade foreign countries over, destabilize them to the point that our presence cost exponentially more deaths than the event we were there to “avenge” did, and do that all while ignoring extremism here at home.
My perspective on 9/11 changed several times. All of ours have, really. That’s the thing about trauma, collectively or individually — eventually, you get other pieces to frame it. The original painting stays the same, you just have context for it and view it differently. January 6th is the most recent example of a perspective-shifting event, but it’s not the only one. The parallel between photos of people jumping to their deaths from 100 floors up at the WTC 20 years ago and last month’s photos of desperate Afghan refugees falling to their deaths after clinging to military transports — begging the US to not leave them to die - is disquieting and unimaginable. We failed to stop 9/11 despite intelligence opportunities to do so. We failed to “save Afghanistan” and “save Iraq” from extremism. We failed to be united in our grief and outrage, or to be united at all.
I started flying unaccompanied when I was 8 years old, just about four years after 9/11. I wasn’t scared to fly, but I remember that I was very cognizant of the possibility that I could die on each flight. I remember both of my parents on either side of the country grumbling about security and making sure I knew to say something if I saw anything amiss. I always made sure to sincerely tell my parents that I loved them before I got on any plane. I began a morbid fascination with reading transcripts from the 9/11 flights. I wanted to know how the adults around me might react if a terrorist hijacked our plane — what the signs could be that an attack was about to happen, how people comforted one another, how it would feel for everything to end. I saw the Pentagon’s 9/11 Memorial on a visit to DC when I was 10. It was a bitterly cold, slushy night, and as I stared at the backlight plates on the Memorial grounds, I saw one that spelled out the birthdate of an 11 year old. I wondered if she was flying unaccompanied.
I grew up in a far right family prone to conspiracies, racism, and an eternal love of Fox News. My mother proudly beamed that one day, I could be one of their anchors. I listened to them talk about how Obama was a Muslim and how Muslim extremism is the biggest threat to our society. I saw my mother’s copy of “Why They Hate” sitting on her desk. Both of my parents had been in the Army, and my step-father was in the Air Force. I went to school on base for a while and volunteered on other military bases. Reveille and Retreat bugle calls are played across base twice a day. When the evening Retreat bugle call began to blare when we were hours into messing around at the base’s after-school center, every single kid, even the misbehaving shitheads, would stop and immediately turn towards the direction of the nearest flag to stand up straight with their right hand over their hearts. It didn’t matter where you were or who you were, even though technically only uniformed service members had to obey this — if you heard the speakers, you turned to a flag and put your hand on your chest and waited. Commissary parking lot, running trail, park, it didn’t matter. It’s deeply ironic to me that many of the same people who take pride in this engrained ritual also balk at how “backwards” and “oppressive” the call to prayer in majority Muslim areas is. I didn’t feel that way then, though. I lived in a blissful world of feeling like I was on the right side, that I should be fearlessly loyal to militaristic action, that victory was just around the corner, that we really did stand for liberty and justice for all — and if you didn’t stand for war, you actually didn’t stand for our troops, and that made you terrible and your opinion wrong.
The night that then-President Obama announced that Osama Bin Laden had been killed, people in my neighborhood just outside of Beale Air Force Base (the home of several elite recon and drone programs) went outside and banged pots and pans together, set off fireworks, or fired guns into the sky in the distance. The memory is uncomfortable to look back on. It’s not that I even believe that celebrating the death of someone who was involved in so much destruction is inherently wrong. Hitler’s death collapsed Nazi command and it was “the end.” But this was not the end. Even after this “victory,” we stayed in Iraq and Afghanistan for years and years more. We slaughtered civilians with black ops contractors and traumatized and maimed our troops. American civilians, meanwhile, took out a broad license to harass their neighbors, stereotype them, and harm them. In college, much to my family’s dismay, I listened attentively in my World Religions class as a local Sikh leader talked about how innocent Sikh Americans were relentlessly attacked and harassed simply because they were confused for Muslims, and how harassment based on someone’s private religious choices and ethnic origin is a broad problem in America. Muslim friends told me about the harassment they faced for wearing hijabs or for observing religious holidays or even for having a last name that sounded too much like a terrorist’s did. I felt ashamed and then profoundly angry as I sat down and read actual accounts of the events that led up to and followed 9/11, and I saw the havoc that was rained down in its wake. I see that havoc everywhere now.
I understand why many military families, particularly those who have lost a soldier to the war, balk at the notion that “this war was for nothing.” I do not believe the deaths of our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan were for nothing. Many of them — though, crucially, not all — were compelled by nationalist propaganda and financial incentives to join the military under the assumption that they were on the right side, that they were going to help people. Those deaths are not meaningless. Neither are the constant deaths of children and civilians via reckless military incursions and drone strikes. “Everything that causes you pain has a cause, and you can find meaning in anything that causes you pain” is a quote I heard in therapy years ago and the cyclical, interconnected nature of our pain and the pain we inflicted on others in response brings it to mind.
I believe there are wars worth fighting. But I also believe that those wars, in many instances, have evolved eons past putting thousands of troops on the ground in a country you view as “dangerous.” The wars we need to fight are against extremism and against its root causes like poverty, addiction, isolation, and misinformation. The reason that extremist groups like the Taliban were able to keep increasing recruitment — see, the US has murdered your entire innocent civilian family in a drone strike, and you have nothing else to lose and no safety net or justice — is the same reason that far right “Christian” extremists are recruiting at a startling pace in America. They can point to tragedies, to social issues, to changing industry dynamics, and persuade people that joining up is their last hope and that if they just “win” via “drastic but necessary action,” everything will be okay. That’s how it’s always sold to recruits: we have to do this one violent thing because we’re the good guys and we have to stand up now or we’ll never get a chance again. Except it doesn’t end.
January 6th, 2021 now colors my perception of 9/11 in unchangeable ways. 9/11 is a forced memory — a day that probably would’ve melted away in the fleeting short-term memory of early childhood if it hadn’t been stamped and flagged as a critically important day. I remembered it because the adults around me emphasized its importance. My father was on a business trip to his military contracting gig in LA, and he was listening to the radio in his rental car in a parking garage when the reports hit. My mother always played Good Morning America to gently wake my sister and I up. That morning, a special alert came on, and as they panned a view of the World Trade Center, it was on fire. My mother had originally planned to take my sister and me to the childhood development center at her university, but instead called our babysitter and had us stay home. Apparently, when she got to campus, she told her students they could leave if they wanted to, and if they wanted to stay, she would put CNN on. They all watched together. This was an example of that “unity” myth. That show of “unity” is what grew into the same person who interrogated a Pakistani friend of mine, with my mother locking her in a moving car so that she could give a speech to her captive audience about how she would help save her from an arranged marriage and “this is America” and sternly looking at her in the rear view mirror as she vomited bigotry on my 18 year old friend who literally just needed a ride home. (I apologized profusely over text to my friend at the time and stopped speaking to my mother a week after Heather Heyer was killed in Charlottesville.)
January 6th was different from 9/11 in some interesting ways. I honestly expected an insurrection on or shortly thereafter Election Day. My psychiatrist seemed surprised by that when I mentioned my anxiety about it. That day came and went, and when the election was called early that Saturday, I drove past the Capitol on my way to the dispensary in a sparkly blue top. I saw pro Biden/Harris people waving signs to drown out vague far right protestors screaming about election fraud. I drank champagne, smoked, laughed, and breathed a sigh of relief. And then, on January 6th, I had liveblogs up monitoring Trump’s speech. I was mostly checking them in the background of whatever I was working on, but as the updates escalated, it was suddenly they’re marching towards the Capitol for real and then, true enough, there was a mob outside of the Capitol. The photos began to come in — photos of them in paramilitary armor, waving Confederate flags, clips of them talking to media or live-streaming themselves ardently and devoutly declaring their devotion to God and to his apparent messenger Donald Trump. My mood quickly turned from a mild annoyance and cynicism to a creeping dread as more and more reports leaked in. Then, the news came that the mob had breached the Capitol. Within mere moments, it was like the world shifted and rocked under my feet. Frantic videos and tweets from reporters as people began openly streaming into the Capitol and battlegrounds emerged between them and police. Watching in real-time was strange because at first, it seemed like just another loudmouth far right shitshow, and then suddenly, a mob chanting “hang Mike Pence” was busting down doors and windows to disrupt the transfer of power.
Civilians had no advance notice at all watching events unfold on 9/11. It was just a quick, violent, scorching change. Nobody was live-blogging about how a plane of angry extremists was going to do a flyby of the World Trade Center and then suddenly rammed into the towers. I cannot tell if that made it worse or better, like if a sudden paradigm shift is better than one you’ve been anticipating or at least watching. It’s the difference between a bomb and an asteroid. If you’re close enough to its fallout, the effect of the impact is broadly the same. It’s all anybody could talk about. Meetings were cancelled. Workers sent home. Every feed was reporting on it.
The shockwave I felt on January 6th was unreal to me. After my friend’s husband picked me up, we were driving just a block away from my building on Q Street when we saw a group of Proud Boys waving American flags and Make America Great Again flags. The same kind that insurrectionists in DC were using to bash police officers and media with. At my friend’s house, the three of us watched the news in quiet astonishment, anger, fear, and the disturbing but somewhat validating feeling of the other shoe finally dropping. We watched Mike Pence’s speech with baited breath, not even making fun of him, which was a rarity for all of us. We stayed up till 1:30am to watch the election finally be certified. We watched The Late Show’s unexpected live broadcast and just as I found catharsis in watching Steven Colbert speak to an empty audience the night that COVID lockdowns began, I found relief in his outrage the night of January 6th and in the knowledge that I was not an outlier in my grief. Other people felt the shockwave too. All of us did. We just felt it differently.
This lie I had been told, this lie that I had experienced, was that we as a country came together and united after 9/11. But truthfully, that isn’t what happened. We did not become united. My ironclad belief from age 7 on that if some shit happened on a plane, we would all unite against it, was even an illusion — it’s clear that violent, politically motivated extremist violence on planes is normalized and endemic now ever since COVID-19 came into the picture, and nobody from the “we’re all united” crowd seems to give a shit. Can you imagine people on Flight 93 having to fight their own fellow passengers to stop the extremists hell-bent on crashing the plane into the US Capitol? Because I can imagine it quite clearly nowadays.
Our response to 9/11, our invasion of both Iraq and Afghanistan, was built on a lie told to grieving people searching for answers. A lie that this was the way to get justice. A lie that incursions into our freedoms were “necessary.” A lie that invading was the only way to stop those bloodthirsty terrorists, and we painted a broad picture to dehumanize civilians. A lie that American supremacy and exceptionalism could never fail. A lie that we could do just this one thing and then it would all magically be done.
We fought those wars abroad. And as a result, we lost our own war at home. This far right movement and its cozy core of disinformation was built on targeting people grieving from 9/11. The first iterations of the people who stormed the Capitol were people who violently attacked minorities in the wake of 9/11, people who bought into disinformation about why exactly we invaded Iraq and Afghanistan and then ardently refused to believe they were wrong when evidence came out that irrefutably showed them that they WERE indeed wrong, people who claimed that the protection of their fantasy Christian, white, militaristic society they still had the gall to refer to as “a democracy” was worth any necessity or moral transgression, whether it was the slaughter of civilians, the human rights atrocity that is known as Guantanamo, or the suspicious and racist views they imposed on their Sikh and Muslim neighbors. Disinformation, right wing extremism, and hardcore so-called-Christian authoritarianism have all flourished since 9/11, and it isn’t a coincidence.
I am afraid that in a decade or two, my frame for both 9/11 and January 6th will have changed, the seed crystal events in a stunning art display of havoc. Art pieces of how extremism and disinformation continued to flourish. Of how people in the center and center-left lied and clung to the illusion that they would be able to stop that extremism or any destruction just with one action, one election, one vote. Of how by telling people we were united and these events were outliers, we enabled that extremism. Of how constantly mopping up our own fucking messes and hiding our own addiction to pretending everything is okay actually prevented us from stopping those messed and making things okay. Of how we left poor communities and communities of color to die in the climate apocalypse, swallowed by unnatural flames or drowned in their own basement apartments, all because we were too focused on “winning” elsewhere. The climate apocalypse, extremism, and disinformation are not enemies that a commando team can shoot. They are enemies that require us to be united in order to fight or mitigate them.
The first step to being united is being honest, brave, and compassionate. We have summarily failed at those things as a country. The darkness makes the bright spots shine even brighter, because there are absolutely pockets of human decency, neighborly love, and a respect for tough discussions — mutual aid groups, hate watch groups, groups that tend to soldiers with PTSD, groups that help civilians after disasters, neighbors who check in on you. But even the brightest of these stars will not replace our planet if it is broken, just like those stars do not replace a soldier brought home in a body bag or a mother shot because of her skin color. I do not want us to keep having shockwaves, but 20 years after 9/11, I am afraid that January 6th, 2021 shows that we will live lifetimes full of these “generation defining” moments. I hope that I’m wrong. I hope that 9/11 and January 6th, 2021 are distant nightmares from a reality that my eventual children will be protected from. But 20 years after 9/11, I see no end in sight to the shockwaves we’re rocked by. I think it’s far more likely that I will one day tell my kids that 9/11 was just the first one that I remember.