Never Forget: A 9/11 Reflection Demanding we Remember Consequences

In September 2001 I had just started my first job out of law school—working right next to the FBI building in downtown DC. I evacuated out of the city, mostly on foot, resting for a while in the apartment of someone I didn’t know—a friend of a friend. It was disorienting, terrifying, and I kept thinking “when will things get back to normal?”

For me, they never did.

My life was shaped, in very real ways, by 9/11. Just a couple years later, I was hired by the State Department to work on a development project in Afghanistan helping to rebuild the Afghan criminal justice and corrections system. It was me and another guy and a tiny budget. A decade later, I was still working on the same project, but now I headed a team of professionals who managed contracts with hundreds of workers and an annual budget of over $100 million. I moved on to head a master’s degree program where I worked with dozens of lawyers from Afghanistan, helping them craft their own legal research projects and reform plans. Afghanistan isn’t a point on the map for me. I lived there for two years. I have visited countless times. There are dozens of people there for whom I hold real love in my heart, and worry about daily.

Remembering 9/11 isn’t a struggle for me. My career arc was defined by the aftermath of the day, and the questions I struggle with every day–how to deal with massive, systemic, social problems–color my view. For me, 9/11 isn’t just the anniversary of one day, it’s a summation of the repercussions of that day. The heartbreak and brokenness in Afghanistan, sits alongside the real gains in development for things like education, women’s rights, and economic improvement. I see questions when I look at a map of the region….how would it have been different if the U.S. hadn’t invaded Iraq in 2003? Would Afghanistan’s fate have varied? How much of the religious bias and hatred against Muslims could have been avoided had our ethos of public discussion been elevated? Is the rising tide of corrupt autocrats, emboldened by the presence of insecurity, a long term consequence of 9/11?

We can’t explore a “sliding doors” alternate reality to really answer these questions, but I think we can try to understand the consequences. There were 2,605 U.S. citizens who died in the 9/11 attacks. There have been 2,372 U.S. military deaths in Afghanistan and 4,424 U.S. military deaths in Iraq. Those numbers alone are heartbreaking. That is 9,401 families forever devastated by the loss of a loved one. Friends and social networks disrupted. We all lost the benefit of the future lives of those citizens. They are no longer with us to contribute to our national good.

But I haven’t counted the wounded, I haven’t counted any foreign citizens killed, I haven’t counted the military and civilians on all sides suffering from PTSD. I haven’t counted the refugees. I haven’t counted the children who lost access to education, or the families who lost access to health care. I haven’t counted the terror and uncertainty. And I haven’t counted the wars in Syria and Yemen that were surely ripple effects of regional destabilization. The systemic harm and devastating human consequence to come out of 9/11 are still being tallied. The hijackers acted on 9/11, the world reacted, and we are still living in the ripple. As citizens of the world, we are all living in the ripple.

We must embrace the complexity of human consequence of policy decisions and try to understand our responsibility to make human-centered choices as a democracy. We talk about people-centered justice in my field–it is a focus of our attempt to help people access the benefits of justice systems. But I think that as citizens, we have to talk about people-centered policy.

Of course, as I start to tally casualties in the middle of a pandemic, there is another number that screams for admittance to the conversation: 192,000. When you read this piece tomorrow, that number will have grown. But right now, there are 192,000 casualties of the pandemic. That is 192,000 families forever devastated by the loss of a loved one. Friends and social networks disrupted. We all lost the benefit of the future lives of those citizens. They are no longer with us to contribute to our national good.

And so when I hear someone say “never forget” on 9/11, what I’m listening to is my still-remembering inner voice saying “Never forget people-centered policy. Never forget to jettison jingoistic, violent rhetoric. Never forget to grapple with the policy consequences of our elected officials. Never forget to hold them to account. Never forget to expect justice. Never forget to comfort the suffering. Never forget to embrace radical, powerful love that demands a future of better decisions.” Never forget.


  1. BigDog101101 says:

    Thank you for sharing! Very Powerful

  2. BigDog101101 says:

    Thank you for sharing!

  3. Kellie Steiner says:

    Thank you!

  4. This is a wonderful post. Thanks, Karen!

  5. When America goes on adventures they expect their allies to support them. Trump is now negotiating with the Taliban which involves a prisoner swap. One of the prisoners likely to be set free, murdered 3 Australians, who were training him. He was to be executed, but is now being released, along with about 400 hard core types.
    Trump want this by the election, so Australian sensibilities will not be of great concern. We are already increasing our defence spending because Trumps America is not seen as a reliable ally.

  6. Sorry, I understand this is an American thing and not me

  7. Geoff-Aus, I thought your comment was very thoughtful and sad. Sorry for the delay in responding. Your comment precisely proves the point of the post. All policy decisions have ripple effects, but policy choices made for corrupt reasons—like trying to extend power by forcing thru an untenable peace deal before an election—has some pretty immediate, predictable, and tragic consequences. I’m sorry for these consequences that have accrued to your country.

  8. SisterStacey says:

    Thanks for this, Karen! I have similar feelings. A friend from high school lost his brother (our high school class president) in 9/11. It’s heartbreaking.
    Then I listened to Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast episode on creating the 9/11 memorial in NYC and he contrasted the time and expense spent, I think over $40 million, to a homeless program in Lexington, KY where the program could use an extra $150 to find people homes/apartments. I think it’s telling how much we want to laud some tragedies, while ignoring others and the consequences of those actions.

  9. Thanks for sharing, Karen. As someone studying/involved in policy, it’s helpful to hear this perspective. I joined the military (and continue to serve) shortly after 9/11 and it’s been eye-opening to see how that event has shaped the world we know today.

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