Though I wasn’t alive to witness the Twin Towers collapse on live television, the grotesque images of grey smoke and dust blanketing the streets of New York City, of men and women jumping to their deaths in favor of a quicker and more painless end, and of both planes piercing the foundations of the American dream, are bored into my brain. As I type these words in the early hours of the 20th anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan, my ears ring with recordings of passengers calling their loved ones in a futile attempt to hear their voices one last time. My eyes swell as I remember the stories of firefighters lying in the rubble because search dogs were suffering from depression as they couldn’t find any survivors. Moreover, my heart aches not only for the 3,000 Americans killed on that fateful morning but also the millions of U.S. military service members and Middle Eastern civilians needlessly murdered in the War on Terror, a military campaign we now know surely had little to do with terrorism.
Even though many of us just entering the foreign policy realm didn’t ‘authentically’ experience 9/11, we grew up in its immediate aftermath, knowing only a world in which the United States was at war. Pictures and footage of bloodied Iraqi bodies were normalized in the media we consumed, and the heinous acts of cowardice that occurred twenty years ago today were regularly exploited to justify the slaughter of innocent brown people all over the globe. My parents would regularly inform me of hate crimes committed against fellow Indian-Americans or others mistaken for relatives of the 9/11 attackers. Though I was constantly frightened by the prospect of being killed for my identity, I couldn’t help but empathize with the fury felt by anyone who lost a family member, friend, or relative during the attacks.
I write about 9/11 on the 20th anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan purposefully. As American citizens, we tend to separate 9/11 from the invasion given our proximity to the former, yet both events are as interconnected as can be. The United States invaded Afghanistan on October 7, 2001 — less than a month after the attacks — purely to seek vengeance on the monsters responsible. Though a swift and uncompromising response was necessary, the invasion was poorly planned and the human cost is inexcusable.
As we make our promises never to forget the sacrifices of those working at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, the firefighters, the passengers, and the police officers, we must not repeat the same mistakes made over the last 20 years in our response to the attacks. Despite the thousands of U.S. military service members and contractors and the hundreds of thousands — possibly millions — of civilians who lost their lives as a result of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the Taliban is back in power and the rest of the Middle East remains unstable and highly susceptible to terrorism and terrorist attacks.
America’s military campaign against terrorist groups has clearly emerged unsuccessful in light of the Taliban retaking the Afghani government and heightened terrorist activity. Young Iraqi and Afghani children who lost their fathers, mothers, friends, and relatives to the War on Terror grew up with a rage instilled in them against the United States and have taken up arms themselves. Until we understand that our current strategy is inefficient and far too costly, we will continue this cycle of violence and hatred, leaving us susceptible to more 9/11s in the future. It is imperative we seek better methods of preventing and responding to terrorist activity. After all, the 9/11 hijackers themselves were radicalized as a result of poorly calculated American interventionism.
Undoubtedly, no event in American history can compare to the tragedy of 9/11. The resilience of the American people in the years since will serve as an example of what the United States stands for, for generations to come. Nevertheless, this doesn’t excuse the Islamophobia, xenophobia, and discrimination that much of this unity was founded on. The same sentiments that endorsed hate crimes against South Asian and Middle Eastern Americans also fueled the massacres of the Afghani and Iraqi people and forever scarred the Middle Eastern landscape. The sooner we recognize these mistakes, the sooner we can truly unify our country and prevent future attacks on American soil.