It was just last year that I was hurrying through the Diag, late for class, when I noticed hundreds of American flags staked on the lawns. It took me a few minutes to remember the day. Sept. 11 — a day whose significance bears the same weight on the American consciousness today as it did in 2001. But with a symbol that means vastly different things to different people, how could an event like Sept. 11 be reduced to the flying of a few flags on a university campus?
I was born in Santiago de Chile. My parents have their own disparate experiences of Sept.11. For them, this day is ingrained in a collective and historical consciousness.
Sept. 11, 1973 was the date of the military coup that redefined Chilean politics and society. This was the beginning of two decades where the CIA-backed military took over the country under the mantra of national reconstruction. The following years would be characterized by systematic political repression and the persecution and murder of dissidents.
Every year, the eleventh is a day of national protests where Chileans of all generations march in the streets holding posters demanding answers for the atrocities that occurred under the dictatorship that followed and demanding change for its persistent political implications. However, not everyone in Chile sees this day as a day of pain and anger. Some celebrate Sept. 11 as the day Chile was saved from the supposed clutches of communism. General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, for some, represents a neoliberal salvation that propelled Chile into the modern era. On Chilean soil, Sept. 11 represents a symbolic moment where the fracture of its society is reenacted.
I left Chile before my first birthday only to return in 2011. I remember going to El Museo de la Memoria y Los Derechos Humanos, or the Museum of Memory and Human Rights — a museum that documents the brutality of Pinochet’s dictatorship. I remember being 13 and walking down the dimly lit hallways listening to testimonies of those who had survived. I can still hear the voice of a woman who talked about being stripped naked and tied to a metal bed frame as she was electrocuted by the regime. I looked away because I couldn’t bring myself to look at her face, but when I looked back, I saw my mother silently crying in the corner of the room. The silence was suffocating.
I wonder if here in the United States this date has come to mark historical ignorance. We talk briefly about Sept. 11 in school. We talk about the tragic loss of life. We talk about the heroes of New York City who worked endlessly to find those trapped in the rubble of the twin towers. But while Americans of all political stripes commemorate the victims and heroes of 9/11, do we ever really talk about its aftermath or the subsequent wars? Unlike in Chile, these consequences are almost never up for debate. In effect, does this silence cheapen those deaths with a patriotic rhetoric about keeping America safe?
There was a time — and perhaps we are still in the time — when questioning those in charge is not the natural order of a democracy, but rather a blatant attack on America. To question is to be anti-patriotic. The fear and sorrow of 2001 has become a fiber of apathy in a cloth of patriotism. It is a resignation to let politics run its course.
My own history is marked by the aftermath of two distinct historical events. Sept. 11 has become a historic reflux that won’t go away with a prescribed dose of patriotism, fear, or apathy. It comes back as an itch that demands to be scratched. In Chile, it erupts time and time again as anger towards a dictatorship whose constitution is still the law. On one side you have mothers holding posters of their children whose bodies are likely lost in the desert. On the other side, you have recently-appointed government ministers questioning the validity of El Museo de la Memoria as a leftist dramatization of history. This is a tear in the fabric of Chilean history, a tear that will never fully repair itself.
A world away, in the U.S., resignation to fear blanketed by a rhetoric of patriotism has become an excuse for hate. Did the pain of 9/11 help foster a narrative that we use today to divide the citizens of our country? What will come of the memory of Sept. 11? To have an identity defined by two critical moments that share the same date is to have a day on which you are reminded on both fronts that history doesn’t just disappear like the bodies in the sand or under rubble but that it lingers like a scar.