On September 11, 2011, President Barack Obama stood in New York City and addressed the nation. He spoke of “our belief in America.” He spoke of “a timeless ideal,” “the bonds between all Americans,” and “the determination to move forward as one people.”
September 11 of every year, but especially of this year, must be a day of reflection and mourning. Ten years ago, America encountered an act of violence greater than almost any it had seen before. Many people in the Harvard community were personally affected by the event in many different ways.
However, as we watched the President speak this week, we noted that the tone of his speech turned inwards onto America, onto national unity, and onto shared national values. As an international student from a Muslim country and an American student from a suburb of New York, we believe that discussions and events commemorating 9/11, whether they take place in New York or at Harvard, must place the attacks within a global context.
After all, the effects of the attacks have stretched far across space and time, taking on global significance. The list of janitors, restaurant employees, businesspeople, and security guards who died in the attacks in New York City, Shanksville, PA, and Washington D.C., available at the National 9/11 Memorial, reveals that many of them were immigrants and people of other nationalities. But President Obama spoke of “one people” and the pledge of Allegiance.
Furthermore, 9/11 is not an isolated historical event—instead, it reflects United States’ role in the world leading up to and following that day.
For instance, the Bush administration used the attacks to inaccurately justify the invasion of Iraq and to urge the speedy invasion of Afghanistan. Although President Obama spoke of “a desire to move to a future of peace,” he has increased troop levels in Afghanistan while in office, making the war in Afghanistan the longest in US history. He went on to mention the strength of US soldiers overseas, yet failed to note the 2700 coalition soldiers, tens of thousands of local police and soldiers, and over 100,000 civilians who have died in Iraq and the 4800 coalition soldiers, 10,000 Afghani security forces, and 8000 civilians who have died in Afghanistan, as well as thousands of casualties in Pakistan.
As Harvard students are well aware, immigrant communities, Arabs, Middle Easterners, and South Asian Americans faced heightened levels of discrimination in the workplace, in public spaces, at airports, and in schools. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission of the United States reported that there was almost a fourfold increase in bias crimes against Muslims in the US. Nevertheless, President Obama asserted that “we have not succumbed to suspicion and mistrust.”
These examples demonstrate that 9/11 was far from geographically or nationally bound. At Harvard several of the events attempted to incorporate a more global perspective in their commemoration of the day. One panel urged teachers to situate 9/11 in the context of America’s role in global politics. Others discussed the changed treatment of Muslims in America while encouraging interfaith commemoration.
However, these events still glaringly omit any critical and reflective discussions of the wars and their costs in Iraq and Afghanistan. Tolling the bells of Memorial Church at the times the planes crashed calls attention to the 3,000 deaths that took place on 9/11, but neglects to remember the nearly 250,000 deaths which followed.
Of course, the World Trade Center buildings fell in America, not anywhere else in the world. Many people’s experiences with 9/11 are intricately connected to the location of the attacks. However, by urging all Americans to take emotional ownership over the event, we cast a US-centric and nationalist stance on 9/11 that dehumanizes and delegitimizes the perceived “other”—and allows us to emotionally detach from wars taking place abroad.
We believe that by recognizing the global character of 9/11, Harvard students and all Americans can make room to remember broadly and compassionately. For us, 9/11 is a day to reflect and mourn a decade of deaths resulting from prejudice, hate, misunderstanding, mal-intent, and repeated acts of violence, across the globe.
Jia Hui Lee ’12, a Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies concentrator, lives in Leverett House Sandra Y.L. Korn ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Eliot House.