Can We Please Stop Fetishizing September 11?

At the Capitol Building in San Juan, hundreds of shoes represent victims of Hurricane Maria

I traveled downtown to the World Trade Center when the firemen were still on sky-high ladders, hosing down the fires that were still burning days later. Looking around at the powder covering everything, I thought, “this stuff is people”. Overwhelmed, I vomited into a nearby garbage can.

But that was seventeen years ago.

In the 1830s the cry was “Remember The Alamo!” In the 1940s it was “Remember Pearl Harbor!” Today it is September 11, “Never Forget!”

Okay, we can’t forget but how about no longer making it a fetish every September to celebrate the 2001 bombing of the Twin Towers? 2966 people died, not including the hijackers. It was the worst act of international terrorism to ever hit the United States, then and now. But it needs to take its place in history, as history, not as an event we can never put behind us.

Maybe “celebrate” isn’t the right word. But what else do you call it at this point? There are TV specials and magazine spreads and editorials and oh my god the media websites…If I say anything negative, someone inevitably says, “I lost somebody!” If they didn’t, they had a friend who did. Or a friend of a friend who did. Or a friend of a friend of a friend who probably had someone who did. In a few more years, everybody will be saying they knew a friend who lost somebody. (Although it’s worse if you live in New York.)

Yes, there are still victims of the toxic chemicals from the Trade Center site. During this period they’ll get lots of attention, until the news cycle moves on.

Here’s the thing. The victims we don’t talk about are the bajillions of Muslims, Southeast Asians and other dark-skinned people who have become government-approved targets since 9/11. Actor Ari’el Stachel has spoken about how, as a 5th grader, things changed “overnight” for him. He became an outcast, despised, so much so that he concealed being from the Middle East until he was in “The Band’s Visit”, for which he won a featured actor Tony. Every year around this time, Islamophobia kicks into even higher gear than usual. Hate crime rates rise. They’re already at an appalling level under the hideous excuse we have for a president, so when they rise, can you even imagine how bad it gets?

In the meantime, since then there have been approximately 6 deaths a year from international terrorism. 6. But according to polls, Americans feel “less safe” than they did before 2001.

Here’s the thing: in most other non-European countries, 3000 people killed is not that unusual. In Syria, they average a death toll of 1500–3000 a month. By 2015, more than 210,000 civilians had died in Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The death toll must have shot way over 300,000 since then!

Also, while we’re mourning the 2966 victims of the Twin Tower bombings, how about we also mourn the 3,000 and counting victims of Hurricane Maria who have died in people who’ve died in Puerto Rico in less than a year?

These victims died, not at the hands of Al-Qaeda, not by some dark-skinned “other”, but by our own government. And according to Irwin Redlener, writing in The Washington Post, “nobody should be surprised if the death toll in Puerto Rico reaches or exceeds 4,000 by the end of the year.” These people are American citizens! If we can muster up bloviating patriotism for “Never Forget”, how about pointing some of that patriotism in the direction of PR?

If this humanitarian crisis had occurred, say, in Nebraska or Massachusetts, it would be front-page news for weeks. The difference? The majority of the victims are POCs. And let’s face it, the optics of 9/11 kick ass. Who doesn’t react to shots of the airplanes crashing into the Towers, to the people falling through the air, to the survivors covered with ash? That’s the stuff that makes for a great visual, be it newspaper, magazine, media channel or Pinterest.

Hurricane Maria victims, by contrast, look like all of the other disaster victims we’re used to seeing over the decades. Dark people in dark mud, downed trees, ragged clothes, yada yada yada. I imagine the attitude is “big sad eyes, yeah, I’ve seen those in the Children’s Aid commercials. You can’t help everybody.” So you turn away and fulminate over pointless shit like who wrote the anonymous op-ed. So much easier to point your outrage at something you don’t actually have to feel anything about.

I didn’t even know how staggeringly awful things were for our citizens in Puerto Rico before I started writing this. The official phrase is “a humanitarian crisis”, which is a nice vague way to say there was catastrophic damage and the worst electrical blackout in US history, for god’s sake! Correct me if I’m wrong, but have these poor bastards had even an iota of the attention we give to one fallen officer? “But he died for his country!” Yeah, so did those 3000 people, and they had no goddamned choice! The vast majority didn’t have to die! Our enormous inflamed zit of a commander in chief went down there and threw paper towels at them!

So much easier to look at the pictures of those we lost all those years ago. So much harder to look at the pictures of women who’ve lost their children, men who have lost their families, people who died because the blackouts caused their dialysis machines and respirators to fail. People who died in mudslides.

We don’t have to worry about international terrorists. Ours are home-grown. They live in Washington D.C. They have splinter cells in various white supremacist organizations around the country. In fact, Tucker Carlson is probably overjoyed about all of the deaths Hurricane Maria caused.

So, as of September 12, why don’t we move on?

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