Ten years ago, my sister died at the World Trade Center. That day, the world changed -- as did my life, and that of my family.
Every year since, on the anniversary of that day, my family and I debate whether to go to ground zero, whether to read the names of the deceased before the world's news cameras.
My sister had taught English in China for two years, living in an unheated apartment in Beijing. She then studied international affairs, and believed in trying to make the world a better place. We wonder why terrorists killed her, and how we should best commemorate her.
For the first two anniversaries of her death, we went to the site of the attack. Then we stopped. It was too painful, opening up too many wounds. We have commemorated her in other ways -- going to the grave where we buried, in a baby coffin, the two bones of hers that had been found. We revisited the house on Long Island where we all grew up.
Yet over the past eight years, we have avoided ground zero, too, because it had become a political event, with politicians making speeches to advance themselves, in ways we abhorred.
Many historians say that a handful of events have shaped the last 60 years -- Hiroshima, Sputnik, the collapse of the Berlin Wall and 9/11 -- a frightening and awesome list.
9/11 is the most recent of these, and the uses and misuses of that day continue to evolve, and its impact continues to emerge.
Of course, my family and I have gone on, adapted, made our lives different, as if coping with a serious disease.
I am more concerned with how our nation has responded.
Shortly after the World Trade Center attack, we invaded Afghanistan. We stood united, Republicans and Democrats together, and had the world's moral support.
But then, knowingly on the basis of fictitious reports, President George W. Bush invaded Iraq, as his father had done. This war has cost tens of billions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives. As a result, we diverted troops from Afghanistan and the Taliban reasserted itself. We then had to re-invade Aghanistan. These wars have lasted ten years -- the longest in U.S. history. (By comparison, the first and second World Wars each lasted four years.) We lost much of the world's support.
In May, when U.S. troops killed Osama Bin Laden, friends called my family and me and asked if we were now celebrating in the street. I was relieved, but I was not celebrating. I know that terrorism continues, and that we still needed to understand why -- that there were lessons we perhaps still have not learned. Some still hate the U.S. because we continued to support corrupt dictators like former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, and these outsiders saw us as greedy and imperialistic. In response to these thoughts, I wrote an op-ed piece articulating these feelings.
The amount of hate mail I received astonished me. The right wing press targeted me as "unpatriotic." The Patriot Post, a right-wing publication, published an article, entitled, "Liberalism Poisons Psychiatrist's Brain." I received emails with subject lines like, "Are you the idiot who wrote that article...?"
"How can you say that we support corrupt dictators," one asked, "We are the ones who got rid of Saddam Hussein!" Many were unsigned.
The level of hostility surprised me. "It's scarier than the terrorists," one friend said. In many ways, she was right -- about the lack of interest in hearing other perspectives, and trying to understand how we are seen.
On this anniversary, we as a nation all reflect together, as we will at few other times in our lives. It is important to ponder how to best use, and not misuse, this tragedy and this moment of contemplation -- that we not waste it.
Unfortunately, this anniversary comes at a time of growing political divisiveness in the U.S. We battle against each other over the economy and our growing debt. Our competitors and enemies increasingly see us as declining, lost and weak.
Yet we should recall today how this tragedy at one point united us, and prompted the world to stand behind us. We should try to remember and learn from that time, and not blow it again -- realize that we have more to gain by acting together than divisively. We face real problems, but should avoid making them means for politicians to advance their careers. To see that we once again face severe threats to our future, from within and without, and that we are strongest and most effective when we respond together. Some might say that this view is naïve, but I think not.
"We in China think that America is still the greatest country," a Chinese woman recently told me. "We think of America as being able to solve any problem, and achieve anything it wants." Other countries still look at us, more than at any other nation, as the land of opportunity and hope.
We should use 9/11 as a chance to join together against current problems, and avoid current threats and to see ourselves more clearly.
I know that is what my sister would have wanted. She would not have wanted to have died in vain.
Crossposted from The Nation.
Robert Klitzman, MD, is a Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Columbia University, and the Director of the Masters of Bioethics Program at Columbia University.