On Sunday, our nation will commemorate the tragic terrorist attacks on our nation. In some ways, the now infamous "9/11" seems like yesterday. I flew into New York that morning and called my husband Mark to tell him that the "small commuter plane" that had hit the World Trade Center was not MY plane. I assured him that I was fine and on my way into the city. Just before entering the Midtown Tunnel into Manhattan, my taxi pulled onto the breakdown lane to let pass the emergency vehicles already headed to the site. I could see into the hole the first plane made, now engulfed in billowing flames. And while sitting there, with my naked eye, I watched the second plane hit and explode.
When my taxi emerged on the other side, into the borough of Manhattan, the police closed all tunnels to traffic. I would be in New York for the next four days, separated from family, assisting dazed victims as they traveled north, and comforting a friend whose husband's parish was fully two-thirds composed of people who worked in those towers. We watched together on TV as the towers collapsed. I still, 10 years later, have not been able to bring myself to visit the Ground Zero site.
In other ways, considering all that has happened in the past 10 years, 9/11 seems like the distant past. The United States invaded Afghanistan in response to the attacks. Our government used the now-proven-bogus claim that the attacks were somehow tied to Iraq and its dictator as an excuse to invade that country as well. Meanwhile, banks aggressively shopped around high-risk loans to people who really could not afford to repay them -- all in pursuit of short-term profits for the lenders. And then, when these and other high-stakes financial shenanigans were found out, we plunged into the Great Recession from which we are still trying to recover. Indeed, in some ways, 9/11 seems so long ago.
Now, marking the 10th anniversary of these events that scarred our nation's soul, it is time to reflect on what we have learned from all this trauma. I fear that the answer is "not much."
Some of us learned to distrust, fear, and even hate other Americans of Middle Eastern descent, not mention entire countries that have large Arab or Muslim populations. Some of us have added that fear to the ongoing immigration issues our country faces and have concluded that we should circle the wagons against the onslaught of "people like us." The words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," now seem like a quaint lyric from a Rogers and Hammerstein musical, rather than the living hope and dream that brought us ALL to these shores (never mind those pesky native Americans whom we had to exterminate once we got here).
At the time of the 9/11 crisis, our president wondered aloud, "I can't imagine why anyone could hate America like this?" I was astounded that the president of the United States, while loving this country with all his heart, was unable or unwilling to consider the nuance of U.S. foreign policy and how it could negatively affect the way some people think about our nation. While I believe ours to be the greatest country on earth, one that has done so much to improve the world, I also believe we have much for which we should repent.
It is sometimes said, "A crisis is a terrible thing to waste." I fear that we have not learned from this national crisis what we could have learned about ourselves and our interactions with the people of the world -- who are, Scripture tells us, also children of God.
I don't know how you will mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11. But as for me, I want to spend part of that day catching up on the learnings I may have missed. I want to think of my attitudes toward "the other," -- however defined -- and examine the ways I persistently divide the world into "us" and "them," whether it be liberals and conservatives, whites and people of color, rich and poor, Republicans and Democrats. The terrorist acts of 9/11 are the logical and extreme conclusion of that unchecked fear and hatred of "the other."
Perhaps, on this 10th anniversary, while we are celebrating the heroism of so many in the face of disaster, and remembering the lives lost on that terrible day, we might also want to spend some time searching our own souls and asking, "What have I learned?" Perhaps there is no more fitting way to commemorate this tragic event in the life of our nation.
Bishop Robinson is the Ninth Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire and a visiting Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, Washington, D.C.