For Most Americans, 9/11 Was a Spectacle. For Me, It Was Personal.

I can barely remember what I was like before 9/11. That optimistic kid, just beginning his second year of college, full of so much hope, very engaged in following the world, full of faith in God —  he disappeared that day. He was replaced by someone else, someone who has lost that sense of optimism and lost faith in “God.” For most Americans, 9/11 was a spectacle, replayed over and over again on television. For me, it was nightmare of apocalyptic fury that deeply affected those closest to me, that happened in my backyard, that devastated my favorite place on earth, New York City, through which my family largely came to this country and which served as its home for generations. As we hit 12 full years of distance from the attacks on Tuesday, I know I am a different person, who lives in a different nation, which is part of a different world.  I would love to say that all those changes have been for the better, but I can’t. As I engage in some of my own soul searching, it is a time also to reflect on my country and the world, to assess lessons learned and missed, and to ponder the future in the aftermath of so much devastation.

After 9/11 I fell into a deep depression, and failed to motivate myself to focus academically. I spent much of the rest of my time in college overcoming my poor performance from that year, but studying abroad in Japan, I experienced an example of two peoples, American and Japanese, who had fought a war as savage as anything in history, who almost overnight became the best and truest of friends. It was unbelievably inspiring, after I had been unbelievably miserable. And it was in this period that I chose to dedicate my life to working towards preventing such things as 9/11.

Yet I had many dark days after my time in Japan. I never, ever felt anything from praying ever again, and spent five years in denial that I no longer had a Christian, or any kind of, faith. Especially following the horrors of the wars we fought after 9/11, the 2004 tsunami, and Hurricane Katrina, I finally realized that that part of me was dead. I haven’t chosen the easiest path, and I’ve made it harder for myself, but I’m as determined as ever to see it through.

In movies, people face challenges they overcome (usually). Even the great movies and TV shows of this era — Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and The Sopranos —felt darker, reflecting our national pain. Some of Shakespeare’s greatest plays are called “tragedies,” stories in which the main character is crushed under the weight of his own flaws and bad luck. I fear Shakespeare is more accurate than Hollywood, and I fear that the tragedy of 9/11 is not one we’ve overcome.

The years 2001-2013 are filled with every kind of terror and every kind of inspiration, but not in equal proportions. Despite years of bloody conflict with jets and suicide bombs in distant lands, the most enduring effects are the hundreds of thousands of dead civilians, thousands of dead American and allied soldiers, and an America that expended enormous levels of resources with very little in return except an economy that has left millions stranded and a population more divided and polarized than at any time in modern history. We’ve seen our brave servicemen die protecting foreign children, and seen them commit atrocities. We’ve seen little girls like Malala Yousafzai rise to fight for the freedom of other girls, and we’ve seen young women strap bombs to themselves to kill civilians. We’ve see the might of our military topple a dictator, then look impotent in the face of rag-tag militias and terrorists and withdraw having failed to achieve its long-term goals. We’ve seen the first African-American president, and an historic inability to compromise. We’ve seen massive charity responses to natural disasters, and Aurora, Tuscon, Sandy Hook, and the Boston Marathon bombings. And we’ve seen New Yorkers and others after 9/11 take care of each other, handling themselves amazingly, and we’ve seen our politicians rise to a level of dysfunction that is astounding. And now, we've seen a foreign leader cross the red line of chemical-weapons use.

I do not believe America or Iraq are better off today than they were in 2000. They are worse.  But regardless of whether you agree with my assessment, on 9/11 we owe it to the dead, whether American or Iraqi or others, to ask these questions of ourselves. And whatever the answer, we have to keep trying to make ourselves, our country, and the world better.