“But victimhood is not—for all that we would wish otherwise—a conveniently moral condition. This is something that those who have lived in intimate proximity to loss and mourning know or have to learn.”
—Eva Hoffman, “The Long Afterlife of Loss”
Unlike most Americans who were alive that day, I do not remember where I was on September 11, 2001. I cannot recall the moment when I learned about the attacks, nor when I first understood the connection between the sudden loss of my father and the history-altering event.
I do remember, however, when I started to hide the circumstances of my father’s death. I soon learned that it was easier to avoid the inevitable shock (“Oh my God, you must have been so young”) and well-intentioned but misplaced desire to relate to my pain (“I remember watching the towers fall on TV”). I would try to change the subject, but my interlocutor—whether a school counselor or parent of a friend—wouldn’t take the cue. Their eyes would glaze over in pity, at once distressed by the realization that it could just as easily have been them or their loved one in the towers that morning—and relieved that it wasn’t.
That experience wasn’t isolated to me or my family. In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration framed the entire country as the innocent victim of an out-of-the-blue declaration of war. This framing was strategic: In painting the entire country as the wounded target of unprovoked aggressors, the Bush administration avoided drawing attention to its obvious failure to anticipate the attacks—and redeployed the memory of the 9/11 victims in service of an interventionist “War on Terror.”
Mainstream media reinforced the notion that the 9/11 victims symbolized the country at large. It seemed the only way for ordinary Americans to grapple with such an inexplicable event was to find ways to identify with the victims themselves. On September 16, as the first obituaries filtered in, the New York Times editorial board wrote, “We are also learning to recognize in the tales the obituaries tell, and in the profiles of the victims we see on television, how interchangeable we might have been with those who died. Their lives resembled ours more closely than we can let ourselves imagine.”
Despite the media and politician’s efforts to “humanize” those who died, my own status as the child of a victim only made me feel less human. At my elementary school’s memorial each year, prolonged stares and looks of concern from teachers and classmates reminded me that I was different from my peers. I came to resent shows of pity, to misinterpret my teacher pulling me aside on the day of the anniversary not as a sign of care but as an act of intrusion—and therefore cause for alarm.
I knew that I did not feel like the weak, distressed “victim” that others seemed to expect me to be, but I found no other models of how a victim should act or be in the world. Resistant to being labeled, I desensitized myself to mentions of 9/11, forcing myself to stare straight ahead during the moment of silence each year or on school trips to exhibits documenting the towers’ collapse. If I could not hide this part of my identity, I told myself, I could at least try to defy the expectations that I was traumatized or in need of help.
As I grew older, my discomfort with the “victim” label became connected to something else. When not being portrayed as weak and vulnerable, the families of 9/11 victims were most often portrayed as angry, hungry for revenge. They were seen opposing the building of a mosque at Ground Zero or cheering the killing of bin Laden or the ongoing invasions abroad. Both archetypes of victimhood—the bereaved and the enraged—felt unfamiliar, disconnected from my own unsteady experience of loss. Even the ceremonies held downtown each September felt stiff. Though victims were purportedly at the center, and the reading of their names took over three hours to complete, the rituals felt impersonal, staged, more an opportunity for flag-waving than a tribute to the deceased.
In college, my discomfort with the formal rituals of victimhood only deepened. Drawn to courses on the history and politics of the Middle East, I began to study the history of American involvement in the region and impact of the post-9/11 wars—and found it even harder to square my burgeoning political beliefs with the policies I saw justified in 9/11 victims’ names. I felt at once ashamed—guilty of how my loss had been used to justify further violence—and powerless, unsure how to interrupt the political mobilization of victims’ pain.
Then, in the fall of 2018, during my junior year of college, my sister sent me an article from The New York Times titled “Guantánamo is Delaying Justice for 9/11 Families,” written by historian Julia Rodriguez, the sister of a 9/11 victim. Rodriguez, I learned, was a member of September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows—an organization that was founded in 2002 to oppose the invasion of Afghanistan and that has continued to speak out against acts of war and aggression that have been taken in their loved ones’ names. In her words, I found a person who challenged my prior notions about what “victims” could be. I decided to reach out to her, and before long she had introduced me to Peaceful Tomorrows, where I learned of others who advocated for nonviolence and accountability. It was also through Rodriguez that I learned that any family member of a 9/11 victim could apply to travel to the detention center at Guantánamo to watch hearings in the 9/11 case. I decided I wanted to go.
My desire to travel to Guantánamo and become involved with Peaceful Tomorrows—to suddenly assert an identity that I had long tried to suppress—is a mystery even to me. I do know I was inspired by the example of Rodriguez and other Peaceful Tomorrows members, and going to Guantánamo, I thought, was the first step in reclaiming my voice as a victim—and seeing the consequences of the “War on Terror” firsthand. But perhaps my resolve also came from a deeper, unconscious urge: Rather than hide my victimhood, I wanted to lean into it, and see what it would feel like to be the victim for a week.
Our week at Guantánamo was everything that my childhood self would have feared. We traveled with the “Victim/Witness Assistance Program” (VWAP), and at every moment, our victimhood was on full display. We were escorted around the base by VWAP staff; prosecution and defense attorneys expressed frequent, heartfelt condolences for our loss. Before the first day in court, our chaperone warned us of the intense emotion we might feel upon seeing the five defendants. She pulled back a curtain so that other observers could not see our reactions. As I stared at the defendants, I felt no burning desire for revenge.
Still, it was outside, not inside of the courtroom that the full impact of the experience sunk in. That week, we lived and breathed 9/11. Other group members shared memories of loved ones and the day of the attacks. I was so young at the time, I had thought I was incapable of forming my own recollections. But as I listened to others, wisps of memories came surging back, surprising me with their emotional force. Thoughts of my father occupied my dreams and waking mind. My fixation continued when I returned: Before the trip, I could not recall a time I had cried about my loss; in the weeks afterward, I cried nearly every day.
My trip to Guantánamo affirmed many of my prior beliefs: The proceedings failed to abide by common standards of justice (lawyers bickered over whether constitutional rights extended to detainees); the names of the 9/11 victims were used to justify ends with which I disagreed (government attorneys told us that their push for the death penalty for the accused was entirely for the victims and their families). But it was not until traveling to Guantánamo that I realized that my renunciation of the “victim” label as a child was not only an effort to avoid being singled out but also an attempt to avoid grappling with the emotions associated with my loss.
After returning, I became more involved with Peaceful Tomorrows and have found some solace in working with other members to end the military commissions, close Guantánamo, and push for safeguards against endless war. But sometimes, in meetings with elected officials or politicians, when we introduce ourselves by identifying those we lost, I cringe, and wonder whether I am just reinforcing a pretense of enlightened victimhood that has little in common with the lived experience of traumatic loss.
Twenty years after 9/11, the names of the victims still carry weight. Though I have found a way to choose how I use that weight, I still feel uncomfortable with identifying myself as a victim. I feel certain that the US response to the attacks has not resulted in justice—that violence, secrecy, and impunity cannot be the answer—but I have also learned that real grief can only be felt, not relocated to a particular cause. That cause can remain essential, and there may well be a role for people like me in pushing back against the use of our victimhood for war and violence. But the cause and the grief are separate.
My own process of mourning does not follow a convenient arc; there is no easy answer for how those of us who lost loved ones on 9/11 can finally grieve or how we can move beyond an ideal of victimhood that insists on its being perpetually in the right. But the true work of “victimhood,” it seems—a willingness to be vulnerable—might present some alternative to the dominant mode of remembrance and grief.