12 Of The Servicemembers Who Died At Kabul’s Airport Never Knew A United America
We have experienced relative peace on American soil since the large-scale and horrific terrorist attack on 9/11. Perhaps this is why a percentage of Americans have enjoyed a detached oblivion, a luxury for those who feel untouched by global concerns. Many sit safely tucked in their living rooms, their eyes and ears stuffed with the not-quite-newsworthy.
Since the day we breathed a sigh of relief when our military disposed of bin Laden in Pakistan, it has been very easy to focus only on what’s been happening inside our borders. And I wonder, in April, when President Biden promised the complete withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan by 9/11/2021—how many Americans remembered why we were there in the first place? And how many even realized we were still there, waging the longest war in American history?
In the last few days, though, Americans were jolted from our malaise when an Islamic State suicide bomber breeched security at Kabul’s airport and murdered nearly 100 people—including 13 American service members.
Loss of life is never easy to swallow. These particular soldiers were aiding in the chaotic evacuation and they died in the process. Aptly, President Biden remarked this about them: “The 13 service members that we lost were heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice in service of our highest American ideals and while saving the lives of others. Their bravery and selflessness has enabled more than 117,000 people at risk to reach safety thus far.”
With the exception of Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Darin T. Hoover, 31, of Salt Lake City, the other 12 soldiers were born in the years surrounding the Twin Towers attack—which makes them 9/11 babies. While Hoover was definitely old enough to have shared the country’s grief, the others never knew the America we knew before the devastation of the World Trade Center site, when 2,753 people were killed, many jumping to their deaths. These babies were born at a time of anger and sorrow and turmoil; they may have been too young to remember, but they certainly grew up in its aftermath.
In the immediate years after 9/11, the United States was on high alert. And we changed. In less than 20 days, President George W. Bush was declaring a mission to eradicate terrorist cells, a strategy that deviated from the military’s traditional targeted airstrike. “Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there,” said Bush. “It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.” Soon after, American troops found themselves deployed to Afghanistan.
I remember the day of 9/11–students and teachers suspending class and watching, in real time, the horror of the in New York. While those 12 babies were toddling or not even born, we were weeping, jaws slack, shocked and angered—but with a fierce patriotism already boiling. It was palpable.
Immediately after the attacks there was a ticker-taped unity in this country. Petulia Dvorak, columnist for The Washington Post, recounts:
“In the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, liberals and conservatives flew American flags outside their homes and let them flutter from their car antennas. A Republican president spoke kindly and reassuringly at a mosque. Lawmakers from both parties sang “God Bless America” — together — on the steps of the Capitol.”
But, as Dvorak suggests, this time certainly didn’t last forever. She titled her perspective tellingly: “Our brief moment of national unity after the 9/11 attacks was just that — brief. Can we ever get it back?” The bulk of the article, as you would expect, focuses on our loss of unity.
I know the patriotic linking of our arms didn’t end abruptly, and like all things that fizzle out, our loss of unity petered out so uneventfully that we didn’t even notice it. Maybe the fear that united us after 9/11 dissipated; maybe time just moved forward and the memory of 9/11 just faded.
Our 9/11 babies’ formative years were spent at a time when our “united we stand” mentality was morphing. At first, we were a unified America vs. terrorism all over the world. Then, our view shifted and it was no longer us vs. terrorists—it was America vs. anyone who looked like a terrorist. Anyone who was perceived to be Arab or Muslim was a potential target—regardless of their citizenship or visa status. The backlash from 9/11, according to Human Rights Watch, “distinguished itself by its ferocity and extent. The violence included murder, physical assaults, arson, vandalism of places of worship and other property damage, death threats, and public harassment.”
It’s not that hate and suspicion of the “other” was unprecedented in America. This was just a new kind. A kind that was halfway sanctioned by a rage-filled United States, a misguided retribution for a terrorist violence that no American had taken part in. We were splintering.
Because they were so tiny, our 13 lost soldiers never experienced the abbreviated brother and sisterhood post 9/11. Instead, they grew up in an America where suspected Muslims and Arabs are still reviled. (In 2015, anti Muslim hate crimes were up 67% from the previous year, the highest they had been since 9/11.) Our country is riddled with discord and cacophony and we can’t seem to heal the division. We repeat Parklands and Sandy Hooks, watching our students die—and we can’t band together long enough to figure out how to protect them.
A protester is mowed down by a white supremacist at a hate-filled Charlottesville rally, and we are fed the line that there are “very fine people on both sides”—when there definitely are not. Anti-maskers, spurred on by hostile politics, attack teachers, salesclerks, flight attendants. Not long ago, two women in New York were accosted, and one struck with a hammer, for wearing protective masks. Asians (many elderly) are being pummeled with fists—thanks to political finger-pointing at China. Black Lives Matter is fought with anathema “All Lives Matter” bumper stickers —and there should have never been a competition. Even the January 6th attack, an insurrection fueled by a mob that called for the hanging of our vice president, was later downplayed and referred to a “normal tourist visit.”
With politicians bullhorning and creating a culture of misinformation, how can we possibly bridge this divide?
Our twelve 9/11 babies only knew a country at war. With Afghanistan, of course, but also with ourselves. I wish they could have known a different America.
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