Lessons in shared resilience from Sept. 11, 2001 can help us in a time of collective trauma today.
Nineteen years ago today, I was a third grader living in the mostly military community of Abrams Park in Marina. I put on my jacket, stuffed my homework in my backpack and yelled for my sisters that it was time to go. We walked alongside other neighborhood kids, like every weekday, to the bus stop to get to George C. Marshall Elementary School.
It was promising to be a beautiful sunny day, despite the morning fog crawling through the surrounding oak woodlands. I had not yet heard that terrorists had commandeered two planes and destroyed the World Trade Center, that another crashed into the Pentagon and another narrowly missed Washington, D.C.
One of the neighborhood kids ran outside, breakfast in hand, approached my sisters and I and began screaming, “We were attacked! They bombed us!” I don’t remember much of the recap as filtered through that fifth-grader's world view. But I do remember the conversations on the bus and in the classrooms, the moment of silence after the Pledge of Allegiance and the whisperings of schoolmates, just kids.
“We’re going to kill those motherfuckers,” said one particularly overzealous classmate. “I hope my dad doesn’t get deployed again—we just got here,” said my childhood best friend, Melissa. My third-grade teacher, Mrs. Caves, asked us individually how we were feeling.
It was a traumatic experience for all people of the United States that day, and for the children of my generation, who are now adults, it was the first memorable wide-scale shared experience. Past generations had been through the explosions of NASA’s Challenger mission or wars or assassinations that accelerated the forced learning of grown-up ideas. The world watches in times of tragedy indeed, but they also learn. They also act.
I learned more in the following days, weeks, months and years about national interest because of 9/11. I gained a new vocabulary: “terrorist,” “Islam,” “war on terror.” I learned about the constant fear of families who had to prepare themselves to be relocated or prepare themselves to be single-parent households because of potential military deployment. My uncle was deployed to Afghanistan twice during the Bush administration. My oldest sister was deployed once during the Obama administration.
I saw the faces of the leaders who led the attacks circulated in the media well into my high school years. I learned in college about the difficult conversations my Muslim friends had to have with their parents about wanting to divorce or distance themselves from their religious identity. I’ve seen malicious attacks on hijab-wearing students and racist Halloween costumes.
A lot of ugly things about the world that came to the surface of my adolescence were because of 9/11.
Now, almost two decades later, we are in another shared traumatic experience that has the gravity of changing the way we live now and into the future.
I learned 19 years ago about our resilience as humansto help each other, both in the immediate and long-term. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, thousands of first responders—firefighters, volunteer search and rescue teams, police officers, EMTs—rushed to find survivors. And yes, the feds helped out too; the House and Senate supported bills to provide emergency response aid for affected areas.
And in the long term, even as many criticized the wars and policies that followed, many of my friends and community members went on to grad school to make sure an attack on American soil at this explosive level would never happen again. Many of my own friends, Muslim or not, saw the trauma of stigmatizing and scapegoating one group. Some started conversation groups in their communities dispelling myths about Islam. Others were invited to Ramadan. They did the slow and arduous work of changing people’s hearts and minds and healing their corners of the world.
The Naval Postgraduate School today, in a 9/11 address, states this hard work of remaining resilient in the face of adversity is something that can unify us—no matter how hard, messy, reactionary, and ugly it can get along the way. The statement reads: “We may never forget the tragedy of 9/11, but remembering it helps to ensure that we strive to do everything possible to build a better world for future generations.”
-Marielle Argueza, Staff Writer, email@example.com