There are momentous events that get etched into our memories as signposts, demarcating life before and after. The impact of such events ripples through our lives—whether personal, communal, or collective—in unimaginable ways. It may be the birth of a long-expected child. Or a beloved person transitioning into ancestor status. They may also take the form of a communal response to a tragedy. The collective coming together to join in the raw language of grief. Signpost events such as these not only impact the lives of those who witness them. They have a curious way of being imprinted on later generations whose lives are marked in the wake of the memories of the witnesses.
9/11 is one of those signpost events, not only in our national life in the United States but also in the memories of other nations. We are at the threshold of two decades since 9/11/01. Around the country and around the world, many will gather in remembrance of the losses suffered on that day. Family, friends, and communities will honor the memory of their dear ones lost in the towers, those who perished trying to succor others. There will be gatherings to observe the high cost of the subsequent military interventions, their successes, missed opportunities, and failures that will haunt our collective lives and that of our children’s children. Herein is a lesson that has been a hard one to heed to learn: the sins and shortcomings of one generation are visited upon another.
Two decades after 9/11, we have an opportunity to move beyond nationalistic impulses and take stock of what our national response to that event unleashed in our world ever since. It has been a curious phenomenon that seeking justice as our nation did has an underside that often escapes our attention. Perhaps, at this moment, as we grieve our losses anew in remembrance of 9/11, we will find it upon our collective spirit to expand the circle of grief.
Every place visited by armed conflict bears the slow healing of ecological wounds and devastation. Lands are polluted in ways that take decades to decontaminate and may never be restored. Contaminants in the food and water supplies leave their imprints in bodies with long-term health effects.
As a nation, we don’t always honor the sacrifice of those taking the oath of service and risk their lives, and worse yet, fall short on our promise to care for them by making lackluster decisions and politicizing their care after service.
As a nation, after 9/11, we have also agreed to sacrifice individual liberties and civil rights for the sake of national protection, in ways that unduly impact members of color and religious minorities in our communities.
As we cross the threshold of the two-decade-long wake of 9/11, with a deep sense of urgency, we should ask ourselves: How do we remember and memorialize the tragedies that shift our lives? What are our responsibilities of care to heal the personal, collective, and even global wounds resulting from our response to 9/11? What will the subsequent generations learn from witnessing how we chose to move from this day forth?
May compassion, not pride, guide our actions.
May care for the world temper our responses.
May we truly love justice to nurture hope instead of hate.
Dr. Ortega has been serving as President of Meadville Lombard Theological School since July 2019. Prior to coming to MLTS, he served as Associate Professor of Social Theory and Religious Ethics at Drew University Theological School. His primary teaching and research areas are Sociology of Religion, Religious Ethics, Cultural Sociology, Social Movements, Critical Theory, Africana Studies, Latinx Cultural Studies.Learn more about Dr. Ortega