“The deep pain that is felt at the death of every soul arises from the feeling that there is in every individual something which is inexpressible, peculiar to him alone, and is, therefore, absolutely and irretrievably lost.” ~Arthur Schopenhauer
I have absolutely zero right to be writing a blog post about 9/11.
I would, like, however, to beg a moment of your time to express some thoughts, on this 15th anniversary, in regards to the way that we talk about it.
And I don’t mean for those of you who lost loved ones, who are still grieving painful losses that get brutally reopened every time you turn on the news, or whose beloved city was ripped apart by tragedy and hasn’t felt the same since.
I’m talking about the rest of us, who orbit it from a safe distance, for whom it’s at least in some way theoretical, abstract, and only becomes more so with each passing year as politicians continue to tell more and more revisionist history versions of it. But there is an element to the commonly-accepted public discourse of this terrorist attack that bothers me profoundly, and which I would like to gently place in front of you for your consideration because of the way I think it tells a much bigger story about America.
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I wrote a science fiction book about time travel last year. I am not linking to it here, because plugging your book during a blog post about 9/11 is gross. But one of the things I love about writing science fiction is that you get to build your own version of the future. You get to decide what the world will be like in a hundred or five hundred or a thousand years. My 22nd-century America included some details that felt ugly but realistic (a Washington D.C. where it never snows anymore; a Congress completely in the pocket of a megalith defense contractor). But I wanted to be a little hopeful, too: lots of women and people of color in high-powered political positions, and a citizenry with a deep and thoughtful comprehension of global history as a result of having an entire branch of the federal government dedicated to time travel.
I spent a lot of time over the year that I wrote this book thinking about America in the 22nd century – who we might be, and what we might be like. And the piece of this future that I hold the closest to my heart, because it’s the longest, farthest leap from the present we live in now, is something that’s so small I don’t think most people who read the book really think about it that much. Which is fine, because I put it there for me. It’s the one piece of that story that contains the densest concentration of things I love and hate and hope and fear and dream about the America all of us will see if we turn on the news today, and this is what it was.
The 22nd-century America of this book was wholly defined by a massive Third World War which took place in the 1980s, and which is referenced dozens of times throughout the book as having a death toll of 56 million people.
That number includes everyone.
Military and civilian. Enemy and domestic. Anytime a character in the book talks about the losses of the war, they count every single life together. They do not count just the American deaths, or consider them more tragic simply because they are American.
I don’t care if nobody who reads the book ever catches that detail, because I wrote it for me. In its own way it is, I suppose, a prayer that we someday live in an America that looks like that.
And so I got curious.
Three thousand is the 9/11 number that I’ve had etched into my brain over the past decade and a half. But I started to wonder what that number would look like if we opened the net a little wider, and asked a bigger – and messier – set of questions about all the lost lives that somebody somewhere is grieving as a result of the thing that happened fifteen years ago today.
Here’s what I found.
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2,977 Americans were killed directly in the attacks of September 11th – on the four planes, in the World Trade Center, and at the Pentagon. 2,135 of them were American civilians. 372 of them (not counting the perpetrators) were civilians of other nationalities. 47 were from the Dominican Republic, for example. 41 were from India. There were also 11 unborn children who died that day as a result of injury or toxin exposure to their mothers.
As of 2013, another 1,100 people who lived in Lower Manhattan at the time of the attacks have been diagnosed with cancer as a result of exposure to toxins at Ground Zero. Over 1,400 9/11 first responders died in ensuing years from a range of illnesses directly related to 9/11.
In addition to these numbers, 4,491 American soldiers were killed in Iraq between 2003-2014 during the war we fought in wrongful retribution for those attacks. While estimates of the number of Iraqi citizens killed during that same period are widely varied, the Iraq Body Count Project puts the total at approximately 174,000; they estimate that approximately 125,000 of those deaths were civilians.
In Afghanistan, from 2001-2014, over 91,000 Afghan citizens were killed in violent action, including more than 26,000 civilians, in addition to an additional 360,000 who have died through indirect causes related to the war. 2,325 American soldiers and 1,173 American civilian contractors were also killed in Afghanistan.
A study from the V.A. just released in July cites that a United States military veteran dies as a result of suicide every sixty-five minutes, though this is widely believed to be far under-estimating the actual total since not every state submits suicide statistics to the V.A. and not every veteran is in their system. The risk of suicide is 21% greater among veterans than civilians. 31% of these deaths are veterans 49 years old or younger, including many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, and suicide rates among veterans have been increasing by an average of 2.5% every year since 2005.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, The Civil Rights Division, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and United States Attorneys’ offices have investigated over 800 anti-Islamic hate crimes since 9/11, perpetrated against Arab-Americans, Muslims, Sikhs, South-Asian Americans and other individuals. This includes everything from the Ohio truck driver who heard about Islam on the news and decided to set his local mosque on fire, to the New York woman who murdered a Hindu man standing innocently next to her by pushing him into the path of an oncoming train because she believed he was Muslim and later explained, “Ever since 2001 when they put down the Twin Towers, I’ve been beating them up.”
All of these people were victims of the attacks on September 11th. All of them were loved by someone, and all their lives had value, and who knows how many hundreds of thousands of them were supposed to still be alive today, walking in a park or playing with their kids or going to church or politely pretending to enjoy their mother-in-law’s Sunday dinner. The entire history of our country was rewritten on that day and we are all profoundly shaped by its events, but as we commemorate the 15th anniversary of that horrific day, it’s so important to remember that the ripples extend out further than we sometimes let ourselves see.
Because we don’t want to see.
These numbers are far from the complete total. Quite frankly, they’re simply the point at which I became too sad to continue counting. Because they are harrowing. Because if we really, truly look at the staggering number of civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan (not to mention other countries throughout the Middle East, I only counted those two specific military operations because the statistics were easiest to find); if we look right in the face of the epidemic of untreated veteran mental health issues in this country; if we think deeply about American citizens beaten to death for being Sikh and wearing traditional headwear in public as the United States Constitution freely permits them to do; then we lose the one and only comfort we can possibly derive from such a horrific terrorist attack, which is the secure knowledge that at the very least, we ourselves are not the enemy.
I write science fiction because I treasure the privilege of being able to invent a better future than the present, but the present is where we live now, so we need to say these things out loud. There are families all over the world mourning deaths as a result of the September 11th attacks that you won’t hear about when you turn on the news tomorrow. But those lives deserve to be remembered too.