Today, I remember the preciousness and value of human life.

Like so many people, I remember where I was on September 11, 2001 when I heard that the towers had been hit. I remember fearing for the safety of my family and friends in New York. I remember the successive waves of shock as planes crashed in Pennsylvania and into the Pentagon. I remember the horror and the terror.

I also remember watching events unfold over the subsequent weeks and months and years, and feeling a different kind of horror. I watched our public leaders use the 2,977 lives lost that day as a pretext for launching a war with no boundaries. I watched 9/11 used as an excuse for hate and violence toward Arabs and Muslims – or anyone who looked like them. Instead of seeing us lean into our highest and most cherished values, I saw us descend into the worst of our nativist, xenophobic, and racist traditions.

We were told to “never forget.” But our leaders had no idea how to actually help us grieve, and remember those 2,977 lives with honor. Over the last 20 years, this is what we did instead:

  • More than 7,000 American soldiers lost their lives.
  • More than 91,000 air strikes have been launched by the United States across Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen, killing at least 22,000 civilian non-combatants and possibly as many as 48,000.
  • Over 360,000 civilian non-combatants have been killed overall in the War on Terror, and over 38 million people have been displaced.
  • More than $8 trillion has been devoted to military spending, de-prioritizing health care, education, and other critical domestic infrastructure – systems that were not ready when we needed them during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • More than $1.6 billion in military hardware was transferred to states and municipalities, intensifying the militarization of police and the profiling and targeting of Black, Arab, South Asian, Latinx, and other communities of color within the United States.

I have not forgotten 9/11. I have not forgotten the profound impact it has had on the way we see ourselves, the way we see each other, and the way we are seen by the world. It is because I remember that I want to make sure we do not gloss over what the last 20 years have cost us. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about the triple evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism, and said this about war:

The great problem and the great challenge facing mankind today is to get rid of war … We have left ourselves as a nation morally and politically isolated in the world. We have greatly strengthened the forces of reaction in America, and excited violence and hatred among our own people. We have diverted attention from civil rights. During a period of war, when a nation becomes obsessed with the guns of war, social programs inevitably suffer. People become insensitive to pain and agony in their own midst…

These words from 54 years ago ring in my ears. I think about the rising death toll in the United States from the COVID-19 pandemic, which now stands at more than 650,000. I think about the millions of people facing eviction because of the Supreme Court’s vote against the federal eviction moratorium. I think of the hundreds of thousands of children and young people exposed to school shootings. I think of the Black and Brown people killed almost daily by police. I think about how unwilling we have been to devote resources and attention to ending these tragedies, at the same time that we remain committed to never-ending war.

Today, I remember the preciousness and value of human life. I recommit to fighting against racism, economic exploitation, and militarism, whether abroad or here at home. And I recommit to building a world where all of us can live in peace and dignity.

(Sources: Watson Institute for International & Public Affairs at Brown University;; The Atlantic; Washington Post School Shootings Database; Statista)

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