Our 9/11 Story: How to Reframe Violence and Hatred into Love and Compassion

Having grown up in New York City, 9/11 has always brought many emotions to me and to many other people. I was only two years old when the attacks occurred, so I have no memory of what happened that day. I have heard what my family said I did, but I do not remember. However, I have grown up hearing people’s “9/11 stories” that often come as answers to the question “Where were you that day?”

The stories that I have heard over the years have been quite stunning. I often hear of the smoke coming down the streets of Queens, where I live. There are people who talk about seeing the terror attacks with their own eyes from wherever they were in the New York City area. I have none of these clear memories—all I hear are stories and all I see is videos and news reports.

However, one’s 9/11 stories do not just consist of what happened that day. The residual effects continue to the present moment. I have recently seen posts on social media about how people, regardless of their background, came together on 9/12. But, we also overlook how people became divided quickly after 9/11. Only a few days after the attacks, on September 15, a Sikh man, Balbir Singh Sodhi, was shot dead, with the shooter objecting that he was arrested while “those terrorists run wild.”[1] This Sikh man was the target of an attack because he looked like a Muslim, which became targeted as a religion of terror in light of the 9/11 attacks.

It was also September 2001 when the War on Terror started, a war that many people of my generation have grown up with and continue to hear about. While this war has continued, it has evolved to take on other forms such as the Muslim ban of early 2017 and increased TSA (Transportation Security Administration) background checks. 9/11 has been a central point in realizing the divisions in the United States about how the Middle East is viewed, particularly how we view people of Muslim and Sikh backgrounds.

There seems to be a tendency among humans to become divided as a result of violence; violence and division seem inseparable as we look at reports of shootings, hate crimes, and other attacks on humanity. However, because this tendency seems to exist in us, it does not mean that it is who we should be. From my Christian point of view, I would say that we are all created in “Imago Dei,” or “image of God,” placing within us a very special nature that gives us the obligation to treat each other with respect. From an interfaith point of view, it strikes me how often love and compassion for humanity are shared values among religions. When we look at the people we admire dozens, hundreds, and even thousands of years after their time, we come to realize they came with calls to peace and compassion, not hatred and violence. Saint Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) did not come with an intent to continue the Crusades between Muslims and Christians—he looked to end those wars. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) came together to fight against discrimination in the United States through peaceful demonstrations. These three are just a few of many religious figures that have used their beliefs (including religious beliefs) to advocate for love and compassion.

This vision may seem idealistic, but it is also realistic: we should look to these role models we have in history and in faith to change the 9/11 story, and by extension, changing the way we live our lives. So much of my life has been experiencing the residual effects of 9/11, but if we truly yearn for 9/12–that day when people come together–then maybe we should look to our historical and religious figures for models of how to show love and compassion for humanity. When we look to these figures, and even within our own spiritual and religious backgrounds, we can come to change the 9/11 stories from stories of fear and tragedy to stories of optimism, hope, love, and compassion.

Written by Aidan Birth ’21, student worker, Center for Spirituality and Social Justice

[1]Remembering Victims of Hate Crimes.” Southern Poverty Law Center, 5 Mar. 2002.