Reflections on a post-9/11 America
Eighteen years ago, a group of terrorists hijacked four planes and aimed to strike them into key American buildings. Three out of four succeeded; the fourth was diverted by brave Americans who thwarted the terrorists’ plans.
On this day, we remember the lives lost and honor the heroic actions of our first responders. We promise to “never forget.”
Oddly, we also say, “Never again.”
Since this horrific attack that claimed the lives of 2,996 people, terrorism has not left American soil. Unfortunately, a lot of it has come from within. The following attacks were all perpetrated by American citizens:
- On August 5, 2012, white supremacist and Neo-Nazi Wade Michael Page perpetrated a mass shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Page killed himself before revealing his motive.
- On April 15, 2013, Islamic radicalists Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Tamerlan Tsarnaev set off two bombs near the finish line of the annual Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring hundreds of others. They cited the U.S.’s anti-Muslim sentiment as their motive.
- On May 23, 2014, in Isla Vista, California, Elliot Rodger went on a rampage that including stabbing and shooting. Rodger identified as an incel and cited his anger that women would not sleep with him as his reason for punishing them. Rodger had been treated for depression and anxiety, making him one of only two terrorists on this list diagnosed with mental illness.
- On June 17, 2015, white supremacist Dylann Roof shot nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. He said his desire to incite a race war motivated the attack.
- On December 2, 2015, Islamic radicalists Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik perpetrated a mass shooting at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California. Although they did not identify a clear motive, they had become self-radicalized through Internet activities.
- On June 12, 2016, Islamic radicalist Omar Mateen perpetrated a mass shooting in Orlando, Florida, killing 49 people and injuring 53. This attack was the deadliest confirmed terrorist attack on U.S. soil since the 9/11 attacks and the deadliest attack against LGBT people in U.S. history.
- On August 12, 2017, neo-Nazi James Alex Fields drove his car into a sea of protestors at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, killing one person and injuring 28 others. Fields had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. He is the other of only two terrorists on this list to have been diagnosed with mental illness.
- On October 27, 2018, anti-Semite Robert Bowers perpetrated a mass shooting at the Tree of Life — Or L’Simcha Congregation in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Eleven people died and six were injured. Bowers cited concerns over “invaders” who were allegedly killing white people.
- On April 27, 2019, anti-Semite John T. Earnest shot and killed one person and injured three others at the Chabad of Poway synagogue in Poway, California. Earnest blamed Jews for “white genocide” and confessed to a previous act of arson at a mosque.
- On August 3, 2019, Patrick Crusius attempted to thwart an alleged “Hispanic Invasion of Texas” by perpetrating a mass shooting in El Paso, Texas.
This partial list shows that while Islamic terrorism remains a real threat, it’s extremism, not mental illness, that leads to terrorism. Although there are terrorists in every ideology, in the U.S., there is a disproportionate terroristic threat from white supremacists, and these killers are citing racist motivations for their attacks.
Islamic terrorism took almost 3,000 lives on September 11, 2001. However, domestic terrorism has claimed more lives than that. And even though it’s perpetrated by our neighbors — or perhaps because it is — it can be hard to spot.
I remember the dread that settled over the nation after September 11. It darkened our doorways and made us fearful to even step outside, let alone fly in an airplane. Worst of all, it defined a clear Other for us to hate and encouraged us to divide ourselves into Americans and Not-Americans. Anyone who didn’t support the Bush administration’s handling of the fallout and subsequent war was a Not-American, while true Americans proudly embraced anti-Muslim sentiments. The Culture War permanently encoded racism into patriotism. Now, 30 percent of GOP voters support bombing Agrabah — the fictional kingdom in Aladdin — while 54 percent support banning Muslims from entering the country and 46 percent support creating a national database of Muslims in the United States. According to a Washington Post study, “when a perpetrator is Muslim, there’s a 488 percent greater chance an attack will be called terrorism.”
Ironically, September 11’s influence on the Culture War inspired yet more terrorism — this time from within. As white supremacists silently organized and drafted their manifestos, we were more concerned with outside threats. Our post-9/11 paranoia didn’t extend to the people we considered our fellow Americans, and we so often have turned a blind eye and deaf ear to the conspiracy theories of our aunt, the racist remarks from our Fox News-guzzling coworker, or the misogynistic rants from our best bro.
We must remember that these attacks are perpetrated by extremists — and that means they’re at the extreme end of a spectrum of beliefs shared by people who would never kill anyone. Therein lies the question: what transforms an angry man who feels rejected by women into a mass murderer? What pushes someone who believes that Hispanic people are “invading” America to take it upon themselves to violently stop the invasion? What does it take for someone to think so little of black people that they decide to shoot them?
Whether we blame mental illness or guns is another topic. The real cause is an extremist mindset. As these terrorists’ manifestos demonstrate, they’re thinking carefully about their attitudes. They’re not killing on a whim. They’re gelling those dark wishes, those little dehumanizing thoughts, into an ideology that can justify violence. They were once your eccentric uncle making everyone want to hide under the dinner table. They were once your loner neighbor who seemed a little off and once made a racist remark about your new black neighbors. They were once your boyfriend who stockpiled guns and regularly visited conspiracy theory websites.
The September 11 attacks provided a temporary, tragic source of unity, but years later, many of us still have not learned to honor and respect our fellow Americans. Instead, in the wake of the attacks, we happily divided ourselves into the Right and the Left, into Americans and Not-Americans. We used celebrities such as The Dixie Chicks and Ted Nugent as tools to represent our allegiance, and we slammed anyone who disagreed with us as “terrorist sympathizers” or “warmongerers.”
We neglected to look within and examine the dark beliefs that we shared with the terrorists. Every time we refuse to get in an Uber with a driver who looks vaguely Middle Eastern, every time we moan about property values going down because an African American family moved in next door, or every time we claim that a victim of sexual assault simply should have “covered up,” we are supporting the ideas that, in radical people, lead to terroristic actions.
We neglected to challenge the false narrative that foreigners were the problem, that they were simply jealous of American greatness, that it was part of a holy battle between Christians and heathens. We delude ourselves into thinking that we’re only targeted by “invaders,” and we continue to be shocked when our neighbors turn into killers. “They were just a normal person,” we say. “They never hurt anyone.”
Until they did.
We will never forget the events of September 11, 2001. But we must also remember that terrorists don’t always match the stereotype we have in our minds. We must not turn away when someone we love starts talking about killing people. We must speak up when someone says that blacks or Jews or women are the problem. We must defend our country by leading with compassionate and open-mindedness, rather than through division and discord.
Only then can we say, “Never again.”