What should Luther College remember about 9/11?

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11 September, 2019.

I told myself I wouldn’t do it. While on sabbatical leave, I would not engage in time-wasting activities. I do spend some time on social media, as a matter of habit, as it allows me to efficiently keep track of my friends and family, and also of current events in the part of the world that is my professional object of study: South Asia. Authoritarian regimes the world over are transforming the media into propaganda arms, and social media provides a means of access to people and events the propagandist media ignore or hide.

I told myself I wouldn’t do it. But a friend shared Luther College’s Facebook post commemorating what most of the world calls simply “9/11”: the 2001 hijacking of four long-haul flights originating on the East Coast and their impact on major structures and a farm field in New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. The post has a photo of the College Drive entrance to the college, three United States flags at half-mast, with a short text that bears quoting in full: “Today, we remember. Eighteen years to the day, we remember the men and women who senselessly lost their lives, we honor the first responders who selflessly put themselves in harm’s way serving our country and we recognize Patriot Day. #NeverForget”

All of this is good. As a historian, it is my professional compulsion to tell stories, and to ask—and occasionally demand—that my stories be heard, so that others might remember. Most of our current students were age three or below in September 2001; some had not yet been born. Asking them to remember this day is not an exercise of jogging their memories; rather, it is an act of historical reconstruction. Our students might read memoirs of people who escaped the World Trade Center or the Pentagon. They might read archived newspaper or magazine reports describing the events and the people caught up in them. Some might even know of or think about this date only as “Patriot Day.” It is good that the college make this official recognition.

What the college has not done, and should do, is to tell a more complete story. We do not tell the story of how, over the week following 11 September, information about the perpetrators of the hijackings became public through the broadcast media, and how this led to the Government rounding up and deporting Muslim immigrants, particularly those from South Asia; and to ordinary Americans taking it upon themselves to physically assault those whom they thought looked like the perpetrators of the hijackings. Some have written that these assaults were carried out against those who “looked Muslim,” which in most cases meant “looked like Osama Bin Laden”: male, with a long full beard, and wearing a turban. Such a “look,” of course, has its Islamophobic genealogy in the images of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the charismatic leader of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and of Yasir Arafat, the pugnacious leader of al-Fatah and the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Yet the assaults occurring during the week after 11 September, and indeed in the months and years that followed, were not limited to those who had the “look.” Women were assaulted. Clean-shaven men were assaulted. People who wore Western clothes were assaulted. What made such people targets? They were brown, like the perpetrators. The week after 9/11 marks the beginning of both an official and an uncoordinated wave of racialized violence against brown people in the United States.

This was neither the first nor last such wave of violence in the history of the United States, or even in the second half of the twentieth century. When I was a college student, some of my friends were assaulted by people who supported the United States’ 1991 intervention in Kuwait that we more colloquially call “the Gulf War” or “Gulf War I.” My friends were not Iraqi, but they were brown. To be sure, brown people were assaulted in New York, New Jersey, and the East Coast more broadly in the weeks after 9/11. But the violence extended across the country, to Texas, Arizona, and California. It lingered in the crevices of the American landscape, surfacing again in smaller waves in places like Oak Park, Wisconsin, in 2012, and Madison, Alabama, in 2015. And while, as my colleague Todd Green notes, Islamophobia has become a growing industry in (at least) the past ten years, that industry is both part of and productive of a racist violence against people who are brown, regardless of their religious affiliation.

So it is right and good for Luther College to commemorate Patriot Day. Perhaps we are compelled to do so by law (as we are for Constitution Day), or perhaps we risk alienating alumni, faculty, staff, or students if we fail to commemorate it. But why do we not commemorate the tragedy parallel to the loss of lives on 9/11? Is the lingering and continuing tragedy of the loss of brown lives not equal to the tragedy of the lives lost on 9/11? Luther College need not wait for the government of the United States to proclaim a national day of commemoration of those brown lives lost, a proclamation not likely ever to be made. We have the moral obligation to tell more than one side of the 9/11 story.

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  • September 18 2019 at 11:49 pm
    Will Layton

    Excellent perspective. Thank you. Thinking back on my history coursework,  the only class where I really remember spending time thinking about 9/11 was a public history elective, but for my classmates, it was hardly history. You raise some important questions, and the way you frame it as a moral obligation for those who teach is incredibly helpful. 

  • September 19 2019 at 12:00 pm
    Kat Beane Hanson

    I've been thinking about this a lot lately, as I hear people talk about the feeling of unity among (subtext: white) people in the US after 9/11. Thanks, Dr. Caton, for adding your voice and this extremely important perspective to the conversation. Our collective grief over the lives lost on 9/11 must not lead us to embrace yet another revisionist view of history that seeks to erase the suffering inflicted upon brown people from our memory. 

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