On Sep. 11, Americans made several different displays of unity to commemorate the 15th anniversary of a national tragedy. Making a speech at the Pentagon, President Obama called on Americans to “come together in prayer and in gratitude for the strength that has fortified us across these 15 years.” NFL games were preceded by ceremonies dedicated to the American lives lost. In our own city of Santa Barbara, students placed 2,977 American flags at West Beach for each person that was killed. All of these ceremonies were touching tributes showing the beauty of community in the wake of senseless violence.
Of course, others tragedies seem to go unnoticed. After 9/11, the United States invaded Iraq as a pre-emptive strike in order to prevent Saddam Hussein from using his weapons of mass destruction. After the invasion it seemed to be clear that none of these weapons ever existed, but nonetheless Iraq lay devastated. A study from 2013 estimated 461,000 war-related deaths from the invasion, subsequent insurgency, and infrastructural collapse. Even to this day stability in Iraq seems hopeless, with the Islamic State controlling portions of the country.
Exactly twenty-eight years before 9/11, Salvador Allende, democratically-elected president of Chile, was ousted in a U.S.-sponsored coup. General Augusto Pinochet came to power, ushering in more than a decade and a half of human rights abuses. An estimated 40,018 people were killed, tortured, or imprisoned during Pinochet’s seventeen years in power.
Both of these examples are instances where American leaders made colossal mistakes, costing the lives of many. However, I am not asking American citizens to hang their heads in shame due to their government’s blunders. Instead we should honor those who died, both by remembering how their lives were cut short and invoking their memory to prevent future tragedies of the same nature.
It may be too much to ask that these events have the same amount of importance placed on them as 9/11. The citizens of a nation naturally are going to cherish the memory of its own citizens more than they are going to cherish the memory of people from a distant land. However, it’s important to realize that the United States is the most important actor on the world stage, often making decisions that affect people across borders.
As military historian Andrew Bacevich put in his book American Empire, America’s global power is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is important that citizens understand that this power affects the lives of many and make attempts to get our leaders to wield it responsibly.
The beauty of America is that citizens can and often have made a difference on its leaders through protest and agitation. As 9/11 showed, the American people have an unconquerable spirit, displayed in the courage of the first responders to the World Trade Center and the civilians in United Flight 93 who prevented the hijackers from flying into the Capitol Building. If we remember the legacies of the past, we can harness this spirit to force our leaders to make the right decisions.
If we choose to forget, we only open the door for the same mistakes to be made in the future. It’s important to remember September 11, to honor the men and women whose lives were cut short so tragically and so needlessly. It’s also important to remember the lives of the Iraqi civilians lost in a war based on false pretenses, and the lives of the Chileans who died under a dictator installed by a U.S. sponsored-coup. We shouldn’t ever forget 9/11. We also shouldn’t ever forget the lives lost in Iraq and Chile.