It doesn't matter if you win or lose
“Did we win?” That seemed to be the question floating around the past couple of weeks as the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks crept up on us. A decade of fear, vulnerability, unity, tension and change has come and gone, bringing discussions that were previously deemed “too soon” out of the woodwork. The day the towers fell, the Pentagon burned, and a small town in Pennsylvania became iconic led to a much-debated war and unprecedented Catch-22: care too much and seem defeated or care too little and appear heartless.
On 9/11, we faced an unimaginable tragedy that brought us together. In the weeks, months and years following the attacks, that day turned into a war that divided us again. Since then, that war has been the focal point of our conversations, especially now that the 10 year milestone has been reached. The special section of the Sunday New York Times bore the title “The Reckoning” above a picture of the Ground Zero rubble and a feature article in Newsweek asked “Did Osama Win?” Ideas of revenge are placed right alongside images of hope. So, perhaps the question should be: is that what really matters?
Most of us were in elementary school when our parents picked us up early and we saw what looked like a movie of a city under siege on television. For many, it was the first indication that evil existed in the world, that one man and one group could affect so many in such a horrible way.
Before that day, we had no idea that there were people who didn’t like the United States, didn’t subscribe to our ideas of freedom and democracy, or that they were willing to take innocent lives to prove a point. We all have our own story of where we were when the towers fell or when the news came that citizens not much different from ourselves had plunged their own plane into the ground to keep a hijacking from being successful. It’s our Pearl Harbor, our JFK assassination, our toppling of the Berlin Wall. When Osama Bin Laden was confirmed dead in May, we shouted “revenge” while whispering “closure.” Students all over the country chanted USA; it was probably the only time Ground Zero has echoed with cheers instead of deafening silence. No Osama, no problem. America could add one more tally mark to the victory wall.
Yet, the question that newspapers have written about, political representatives have commented on, and classrooms have debated remains: did we win? Was the “mission accomplished?” Have we emerged victorious over that shapeless, faceless blob known as Terrorism? At this point, many of us would say yes, with reasonable evidence. The resilience and strength of New Yorkers and Americans everywhere is praised as a victory. The Wild West ideal of good and bad has been resurrected, creating more space between “us” and “them.” “They” will not defeat us. “They” will not overtake us. “They” will not change the way we live. The thing is, they have.
It doesn’t matter that the scale has temporarily been tipped in our favor. We have lost something precious—especially as a generation—that we can’t get back: our innocence. We wait an extra hour in line in the airport, standing in front of full body scanners and military personnel carrying guns so big they don’t even look real. Whenever a plane flies just a little too low over Times Square, people look up and hold their breath. There are evacuation and contingency plans in every school, building and public space in major cities across the country. Parents tell their children what to do and where to go if they are ever separated when an emergency happens.
But we go about our business, as if nothing is wrong, because this is all normal for us; we’ve grown up with it and we don’t know any better. In an effort to keep up the optimism and patriotism that goes along with “never forget,” it seems that we have avoided addressing the sadness that goes hand in hand with it. After all, that would be “losing.” Showing “the bad guys” that they had won, that we had succumbed to grief instead of rising above it to become stronger. We are allowed to be sad sometimes, scared sometimes and we are allowed to grieve. Instead of listening to “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue,” shed a tear or think about honoring the victims instead of avenging them. Ten years ago, people gave their lives, whether they meant to or not. It doesn’t matter if we win or lose, because we lost in the worst possible way. It doesn’t make us weaker or less American, it just makes us human.