The first plane hit the north tower at 8:46 a.m. The second one hit the south tower at 9:03 a.m. The third hit the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m. The fourth and final one crashed in a Pennsylvania field at 10:03 a.m. The images are seared into our individual and collective memories. That was 20 years ago. At the time, only a handful of Americans had heard of Osama bin Laden. In the following days, all of us would come to know that name and the organization, al-Qaida, to which it is inextricably linked.
The Sept. 11 attack immediately became the defining event of a generation of children who were born a few years before or after it took place. (Those who were born on that day will be legally allowed to drink alcohol next year.) For many adults, that date became the quintessential “where were you when it happened” moment. In the ensuing two decades, the phrase “Never Forget” has become a nearly ubiquitous admonition for commemorating the history-altering event.
In the immediate aftermath, there was a spontaneous and genuine galvanizing of Americans. Even the French newspaper Le Monde, which often was (and remains) critical of American foreign policy declared in its Sept. 12 headline, “We Are All Americans.” Many of our nation’s social fault lines temporarily went by the wayside. Unfortunately, however, the spirit of unity included anti-Muslim speech and actions. (To his credit, then-President George W. Bush condemned such bias.)
Sadly, our trauma-induced national unity began to wane relatively quickly. Within a few weeks, the political divide between Democrats and Republicans had returned, heralding the resurgence of broader antagonisms. One of the most curious examples was a twist on anti-Black racism. In this new version, many white Americans began to openly criticize African Americans’ perceived lack of mourning regarding the attack. While questioning our patriotism goes back more than a century, questioning whether we cared about the needless slaughter of thousands of our fellow Americans seemed novel. I remember being quite taken aback when I became aware of it.
I don’t know whether any research studies exist regarding the extent to which African Americans may view Sept. 11 as less tragic than white Americans do. Thus, I can’t state definitely whether that claim is true. However, I do know that the majority of African Americans are very familiar with trauma — and can become desensitized to it. Indeed, studies show that a high percentage of us believe that we face an existential threat in America.
Tragically, I believe that such trauma is a key factor in causing far too many of our young men to act in ways that threaten their lives as well as the lives of others. The likely consequences of their actions frequently are far from their mind: “If I’m going to die a violent death anyway, I might as well live as though there’s no tomorrow.”
I am fully aware that many of our fellow Americans who are white will ask the following: “Why does everything have to be about race?” That’s a fair question — one that African Americans constantly ask ourselves. But the context of the question is different for each race. White Americans tend to raise it when Black Americans praise our own — often for being “the first” to achieve something. Black Americans tend to raise the question after learning about yet another “living your life while Black” incident.
In other words, it isn’t that African Americans feel less sadness or outrage about the biggest terrorist attack ever to be carried out on our soil. We certainly do. Like white Americans, we lost spouses, family, friends, co-workers and classmates. But we tend to have to find ways to cope with epidemic levels of violence, systemic racism, disproportionate health outcomes and other inequities that are based primarily or solely on our race.
Thus, even as we mourn the tragedy of Sept. 11 as white Americans do, the fact remains that most of us endure a very different life than most of them — irrespective of our socioeconomic status. This is not to understate the fact that white Americans deal with substantial hardships (including the ongoing pandemic). Yet, the unrelenting reality of Black lives — from banal microaggressions, to police brutality, to disproportionate poverty, to intra-racial violence, to job discrimination at all educational levels — has caused a deep level of emotional scarring. We do care about attacks on Americans. All of them.
Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.