International Perspective 9/11

Yes, I’m working on the much more fun New Zealand stories, but they aren’t ready to publish, so here’s a little thought for the 15th “anniversary”.

Two years ago (2014) I was in Saudi Arabia for 9/11 but I had only arrived a few days before. I didn’t know enough to feel comfortable asking too many questions and I was assured that discussing it on any form of public social media would be grounds for reprisal. Were there people in Saudi who celebrated 9/11? Yes. But that just makes those people immature jerks who enjoy schadenfreude and every culture has some of those. Please don’t judge a whole country or religion by it’s worst representatives (Westboro Baptist, anyone?) Were there people in Saudi who grieved for the loss of life and for the perversion of their faith? Absolutely. I’m a little sad I didn’t get the chance to write about it at the time, because it was a surreal and thought provoking experience to be American in the country that spawned Osama-bin-Ladin during that time.

For most people outside the US, 9/11 is just another day. For most Muslims this year, 9/11 isn’t about terrorism, but the biggest holiday of their calendar, Eid al Adha, that only coincides with September 11th every so often because it is decided by a lunar event. While it’s important to remember our own history, it’s also good for us to be able to see through the eyes of those who are different from time to time.

I spent my September 11th this year with a family of Canadians at a UN Memorial for the Korean War here in Busan. It didn’t even occur to me that it was 9/11 because, living on the other side of the date line, my Facebook feed was still set to “normal” instead of “super patriotic reminder day”. It wasn’t until I woke up on Sept. 12 that I saw the flood of memes telling me to “never forget” that I realized the actual date.

Sometimes, I get a little frustrated with America for being so sensitive about 9/11, but then I have to remind myself, everyone’s trauma is valid. There is no scale of objective judgement for how a traumatic event affects someone. One of the worst things you can do to a victim is to diminish their pain by telling them how much worse someone else has it. So, it’s not helpful to tell America to get over 9/11 because other countries have more terror attacks or more deaths.

However, when I look at the Korean War Memorial here and realize that I am living in a country that was 90% flattened 60 years ago and is now one of the most technologically advanced democracies in the world, I am astonished. Korea did not forget what happened to them by any means, but nor do they treat their aggressors with spite and hatred. Even though the North decimated the south, leaving a landscape of ash and rubble, South Korea does not seek retribution and instead implemented things like the Sunshine Policy. Even after that policy ended due to continued rejection and aggression from the North, South Korea has refused to use force or invasion to punish the North or bring them back into the fold.

What is the point I’m getting at? Well, victims of trauma have a choice. Do we collapse in on ourselves with self-pity while lashing out at the world in anger, or do we learn to be strong and use that strength to practice compassion towards others who have suffered in a way we now uniquely understand?

After 9/11, America lashed out hardcore, starting a war in a country that had nothing to do with our trauma because we were so hurt and angry and scared. But it’s been 15 years. Kids in high school don’t know what it felt like to watch the towers collapse in flames, to stare at the devastation played over and over on every TV and try to reconcile the fact that it wasn’t a movie effect, to wonder if your loved ones in New York and DC were alive but not be able to get through because the phone lines and cell towers were so overloaded. In a few more years those kids will be adults, old enough to enlist or even be drafted into the military that is still fighting in the aftermath of that lashing out.

So by all means, never forget, but think carefully about what you want to do with that memory. When we look at countries, including Muslim ones, who are devastated by ISIS or other terrorist attacks, do we ignore their plight in order to nurture our own homegrown grievance, or can we say, “Yeah, I know how that feels, let’s help each other get through this.”?

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