Reflecting on the 20th anniversary of 9/11

As Welcoming Week 2021 kicks off this week with joyous celebrations across the world — virtually and in-person — we also take a moment of silence today to reflect on the lives lost on September 11, 2001.

I recall 9/11 vividly, when the world changed irrevocably. Sitting at my desk across the Potomac River, I felt the boom as American Airlines Flight 77 hit the Pentagon, and watched smoke billow up over the Washington skyline. In the weeks that followed, we honored the fallen and mourned the victims; a fleeting moment of national unity, and calls to rise above our worst instincts of blame and scapegoating, buoyed a sense of courage to confront the challenges of this new era.

Sadly, these were quickly followed by the deliberate seeding of narratives that presented Muslim Americans and immigrant Americans as a threat, paving the way for a host of undemocratic and anti-immigrant policies and narratives — an unpleasant legacy that we still feel today. None made us safer; instead, these narratives pitted American against American, making it harder to solve problems and easier to cast blame.

Twenty years after 9/11, these efforts to keep us apart and vulnerable to fear continue, but so do efforts to reinforce the very things that bind us as Americans — and to remind us of all we share in common.

Since 2012, Welcoming Week has always been about planting the seeds of a different kind of way of being: one that rejects fear of the “other” and replaces it with the kind of unity that is more than just tolerance. Welcomers everywhere know that true safety is counting on your neighbor — not because they look, or pray, or think like you — but because you’ve worked to build a bond, and because you know that your futures are intertwined.

Today, we honor the lives lost on 9/11, including the many servicemen and women, public safety officers, and everyday Americans who have dutifully served our country and worked to keep us safe.  We also redouble our efforts to shine a light on the voices everywhere who remind us every day that we can be a nation whose courage rises above its fear, and whose safety and strength is ultimately rooted in our common bonds as Americans.

Rachel Perić is executive director of Welcoming America.