Learning from our mistakes

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I was six years old on Sept. 11, 2001. My mom and I had just moved to Connecticut from Manhattan barely a month beforehand. While I was in elementary school that day, she had returned to New York City to finish unloading our things from the old apartment. I remember when the attacks were announced over my school loudspeaker, and how terrified I was. I was worried for my mom, but I was more afraid for my city, my home. It had been hurt, and I couldn’t understand why.

People of my generation and I are in the odd situation of being old enough to remember the attacks, but too young to remember what the world was like before they occurred. I don’t remember the shift from post-Cold War to post-9/11, because I lived it. My childhood was a series of world-shattering events, but I had little context. I remember when the United States went to war in Afghanistan, and then in Iraq. I remember that my mother opposed the wars from the beginning and that more people began to agree with her as time passed. Most importantly, I remember that I was supposed to love America. Every morning in elementary and middle school, students would pledge allegiance to the flag hanging in the corner of the classroom, because we were proud of our country.

This brutal combination of enforced patriotism and increased anxiety greatly affected my early childhood. I knew that the world was changing, that it was a scary place where people had the ability to hurt my hometown, but I didn’t know why it was all happening. I wasn’t politically aware until the 2008 election, when I was 13, and by then 9/11 had become a fact of life rather than a shocking occurrence. Older generations were horrified by the terrorist attacks. To me, retroactively, 9/11 was a part of my childhood: this was the way of the world. The terrorist attacks in London in 2005, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 all seemed to confirm the fears that I had known since I was six years old. There’s a tiny voice in my mind that kept repeating: this is the world, and we are not safe.

When I first heard of what happened in Paris, I got the sick feeling in my stomach that I had when I was in my first grade class, and news of 9/11 was announced over the loudspeaker. I was immediately worried for my friends studying abroad in Paris, for the people of that city as a whole. Yet the aftermath of these attacks, and acts of terror elsewhere in the world as well, are scaring me far more than the possibility of a similar one occurring in London, where I am studying now, or in New York. I’m 20 years old. I understand what’s going on, and it terrifies me.

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I remember the uptick in patriotism after 9/11, but what I didn’t recognize was how damaging that nationalist sentiment could be. It took me many years to realize how post-9/11 jingoism had led to rampant Islamophobia in America, which affected my Muslim friends. It took me many years to appreciate the toll of the wars we had waged in the Middle East. As an elementary and middle school student, I was told to remember 9/11 and to support our troops. It took time for me to recognize how the wars we were waging, wars which have been occurring for most of my life, resulted in the further destruction of a region. We were supposed to support our troops, but we weren’t supposed to talk about the conflicts that they were fighting, and we weren’t supposed to ask questions when they got back home.

I feel like I’m reliving that time in my life, only with a different perspective. President Hollande has declared that France is at war in the aftermath of the attack. I remember when the “war on terror” first began. The House of Representatives just passed an act to make it incredibly difficult to accept Syrian refugees. I remember when I was told by my eighth grade Social Studies teacher that we had to watch out for Muslim immigrants. The world has gone into crisis mode, and governments are battening down the hatches and spewing hateful rhetoric without pausing to think or remember what happened the last time we went down this road. I remember when the world went to war the first time after a terrorist attack, I remember the poisonous language of politicians, only this time I understand the context and recognize what is happening.

I was a child on Sept. 11, 2001, but I’m not anymore. I feel just as hopeless now as I did then, only this time I understand the ramifications of what is occurring. I know what a war will do; I grew up watching it unfold. I can only hope that this time, the world will have learned from its mistakes, or the next generation of children will have to grow up with the same anxieties that I had.

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