Today we remember the day that, in the words of president George W. Bush, “freedom was attacked.” I remember the day like it was yesterday, or at least, that’s how I feel about it. Yet today, as I consider the day that changed the course of a nation and set us on a path toward two costly wars, I can’t help but wonder how best to remember that tragic day. Even more importantly, I am haunted by Gandhi’s admonition to “be the change you wish to see in the world,” and what that call means for me personally.
As I reflect on my initial response to 9/11, I remember a short period of confusion followed by a significantly longer period of anger. Initially, the attack brought us together as a nation, and brought out our best selves. We weren’t worried about revenge; we were worried about our neighbor. We grasped how fleeting freedom truly was and saw that it had enemies in parts of the world that many of us couldn’t even locate on a map. We were patriots, we were neighbors, we were family. Oh to just live in that moment!
But complacency and politics very quickly hijacked our altruism, and nationalism quickly swept our nation. Nationalism swept me away. After all, my nation was attacked, and we had to respond. Unfortunately, if history can teach us any lesson in this area, it’s that nationalism gets ugly. Nationalism doesn’t defend freedom, nationalism steals freedom from everyone, including the very ones who are caught in its thrall. We lost sight of the reality that we, in the words of Henley’s Invictus, are the masters of our fate and the captains of our souls only so long as we choose to be. And like a vast majority of Americans, I allowed something else to chart my course.
I was excited when we invaded Iraq and Afghanistan. Finally, we would execute righteous vengeance on those who had perpetrated the invasion of my freedom. An eye for an eye. In the process, we would also bring freedom to new parts of the world. The shock and awe of the glorious and righteous campaign of the American-led military coalition would pale in comparison to the beacon of freedom that we would bring, like Lady Liberty’s torch burning bright to the darkest parts of the world.
I should have known better.
If history teaches us anything, it is that freedom is an idea, not a country. The mightiest armies in the world have been totally incapable of defeating ideas. In fact, when mighty militaries attempt to clash with an idea, it is always the army that loses. The British Empire learned this lesson the hard way in the American War for Independence, when the ideas espoused by the Declaration of Independence defeated the empire upon which the sun did not set. Almost two centuries later, the American military suffered perhaps an even more humiliating defeat in the jungles of Vietnam, when it attempted to defeat communism. You simply cannot defeat an idea with a gun.
But this would surely be different, wouldn’t it? After all, America was on a righteous mission to eradicate the specter of terrorism from civilized society. And here is a reality about fighting for freedom: Freedom can never be bestowed by man; it can only be defended. In the words of the Declaration, our rights are the gift of the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God. They are unalienable (or inseparable) from us. I do not have the authority to give another his or her freedom, because I am not his or her creator. I can defend my own freedom; it is my birthright. I can help another in the defense of his or her freedom; it belongs to them. But I can never give that which was never mine to give.
Another lesson of history. During the Vietnam War, the American military went to support a slightly less tyrannical government in the supposed defense of freedom. We paid a heavy price in blood and treasure for our arrogance. And in the end, we didn’t even earn the gratitude of those we were supposedly helping, nor should we have. We devastated the lives and livelihoods of the South Vietnamese. We supported a repressive and totally incompetent military dictatorship that was despised by its own people. Over 58,000 American soldiers never came home at all, and many thousands more came home physically bearing physical and mental scars that meant that their lives would never be the same. We paid a terrible price in freedom’s name, but on tyranny’s account.
I can’t help but wonder that we haven’t done the exact same thing in our current war on terrorism, yet another idea that has proven to be bullet-proof. We’ve lost about 7,000 soldiers in these costly wars, with thousands more injured. Not only that, but in the time since our involvement in these wars began, the suicide rate among veterans aged 18-34 has almost doubled (US Department of Veteran’s Affairs, 2016 National Suicide Data Report). ISIS has claimed responsibility for the 6,000 annual suicides per year among US veterans, and one cannot afford to dismiss this claim out of hand. Even if we only gave them credit for the increase that has transpired, this would make the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars as costly as Vietnam!
Iraq barely exists as a nation anymore, its existence more or less relegated to old world maps, and the US military (and countless Afghanistan civilians) continues to pay in blood for the support of the Afghan government that, like South Vietnam in the 1960’s and 70’s, doesn’t even vaguely resemble the Western ideal of freedom. A recent Guardian article warns that if the US were to leave, Afghanistan would descend into civil war. Sound familiar?
And now my focus comes back to me, after all, I have to be the change I want to see in the world, right? How do I fight an idea like terrorism if a gun has proven to be less than worthless? I would submit that we must fight an idea like terrorism with a better idea, like freedom. If “darkness cannot drive out darkness. . .[and] hate cannot drive out hate,” and “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” maybe I need to change how I’m fighting the war on terrorism.
I believe that the answer to the question lies in the daily ritual that is performed at the site of the Twin Towers in New York City. Each day, a single rose is lain next to the name of each person whose birthday it would have been that day. These roses serve as a daily reminder of the lives of those who were taken that day. Their lives may have been stolen, but not their freedom; at least not automatically. What gives our lives meaning is the legacies we leave and this is something, like freedom, that can be given, but never truly taken away. Unlike the empty skyline of Lower Manhattan, the memories of the men and women who died that day continue to soar ever higher in the memories of those who loved them. It is their memory that we should be fighting to preserve.
So the real tragedy of 9/11 is not that our nation was attacked. The real tragedy is that I allowed my anger in the aftermath of that attack to cause me to forget the men and women whose lives were lost, and the families that would never be the same. I believed that a nation, rather than a memory, must be defended. I compounded my own error by sentencing tens of thousands of American families to the same loss. The wars that I supported have also robbed thousands of Afghani and Iraqi families of the same basic human right. Freedom was not the victim of terrorist plots, because our freedom was never theirs to control. Freedom was the casualty of my anger; of the nationalist wolf disguised in my self-righteous patriotism.
Darkness, revenge, and hatred will never suffice to combat the menace of terrorism, but maybe love will. And so, to the families of all who lost loved ones in towers, battlefields of the Middle East, devastated towns of Iraq and Afghanistan, and to the silent ghosts that haunted the minds of those who never truly came back from those places, I ask your forgiveness. And I promise that I will never forget you, and that I will fight to preserve the legacies left by those who are gone from our lives, but never from our hearts. And I believe that if we do this, we will finally rise again to freedom’s defense, like we did in those days immediately after 9/11, the days when we were free to love.
Nathan Gilson is a Social Studies Teacher in South Carolina with over 10 years of experience in the public school systems. He has taught US and World History courses, and is currently working toward a Ph.D. in History from Liberty University.