Welcome Guest! You are here: Home » Views & Analysis

Remembering Collective Trauma

In the longest war we have seen in modern times, we have gained absolutely nothing but lost so much

Sunday September 12, 2021 10:38 AM, Shirin

9/11 and Afghan War

Exactly 20 years ago I was at the Amnesty International office in the Eastern Market area of Washington DC. I was working there under a UN fellowship program. I had arrived in the US only a few months previously, and in my early 20s had only just begun to adapt to life in that country. As usual, I reached the office a little before 9. I had just started work when my attention was drawn to the TV. An airplane had crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Centre in New York city. It was absolutely shocking. A few minutes later it was reported that the second tower had also been hit by a plane. What first looked like a shocking accident, now seemed like a deliberate act.

As we stared at the television screen, stunned by the horror and disbelief of what we were watching, someone turned around and said, "What if the Pentagon is hit too!". As if by instinct, we all rushed to the window that overlooked southwest DC, the Potomac river and the state of Virginia. Right there, at the beginning of Virginia, we saw that the Pentagon was on fire. The person who had predicted this obviously had a much sharper understanding of what was unfolding than I did. He understood that this was an attack on the United States with key sites being targeted.

Rumours started to spread that a plane was about to attack the Capitol (the US parliament). We were right next to it as the Amnesty office was strategically placed so that our staff could talk to Senators and members of Congress. We felt desperately trapped. It was decided to evacuate the office. My memory is of all of us quickly going down the stairs and hurriedly figuring out plans to get to safe spaces.

Also Read | 9/11 Attacks 20 Years Later: Where Is The Wisdom?

I did not have a car. I used to take the metro to work. It was agreed that the metro was most probably locked down. Somebody asked me to get into his car. There were four or five of us in the car and we started to drive fast out of DC. It seemed that the whole city was on the run, trying to get as far away as possible and as quickly as they could from the US Capitol and the White House.

In the car, I took out my phone to call Sameer but the phone was not working. Other people's phones were not working as well. We kept trying every few minutes. We were all definitely scared and half expecting bombs to drop around us. Someone remarked that the attacks were most likely the result of US interference in the middle east. Honestly, I didn't think too deeply about it at the time. We were all just trying to figure out how to reach wherever we wanted to go and hoping that this was not going to be the apocalypse.


I requested to be dropped off at Sameer's office who was working in Takoma Park, just at the border of DC and Maryland. We were both infinitely relieved to see each other. His office had not been shut like mine but he took permission to leave and we both headed home into Maryland. The next several hours were spent hearing the news. Like everyone else, we were in a state of huge shock, incomprehension and uncertainty. In the evening, Sameer's aunt who lived alone, called us and suggested we meet. We met her in a cafe and I don't remember us talking much. We mostly just sat there silently. There were several people around us and yet it was very quiet. Everyone seemed to be in a state that was half pensive and half lost.

Kabul Afghanistan

Later, as I became a peace educator, I learnt that wars cause a very specific kind of trauma. This trauma is unlike more common forms of trauma – for example, the death of a loved one, being a victim of a violent attack, a robbery or an accident. A war makes us experience collective trauma. Through collective trauma we become part of a larger group that is at war with another group. I knew none of the people around us on that quiet evening as I sat with Sameer and his aunt. But I felt I was part of them and they were part of me. We were all experiencing collective shock and horror.

Also Read | US defeat in Afghanistan is also end of its ambitions to remake world

You can imagine how much these feelings would multiply if a person was actually standing in front of the twin towers on September 11, 2001 or was present inside the Pentagon that day.

When collective trauma happens, we are often forced to adopt a collective identity and commit further violence to defend that collective identity. But these collective identities of "enemy nations" or “enemy communities" are untrue in most cases. What does an average person in the US or an average person in Afghanistan have anything against each other? The nearly 3,000 people killed on September 11 had no quarrels with Afghanistan. Nor did the 47,000 Afghan civilians killed since then have a quarrel with the USA. In the longest war we have seen in modern times, we have gained absolutely nothing but lost so much. We have lost nearly 175,000 lives - civilians, soldiers on both sides, contractors, aid workers, medical staff and journalists.

The loss does not end there. Over 6 million Afghan people have been rendered homeless - 2.6 million refugees and 3.5 million internally displaced.

Also Read | World not a paradise like Washington: Courtesy, US Foreign Policy

Can you imagine how much trauma we are talking about? Not just the deaths and loss of homes but the impact on minds? What will it do to us? We may not feel it right now because we were not the ones clinging to dear life trying to get on the outbound planes leaving Kabul but the trauma will impact us. After all, we all live in the same world.

My first task at the Amnesty International office in DC in 2001 was to prepare a report on refugees from Afghanistan in the neighbouring countries. They were rendered homeless because of the violent conflict in their own country. Twenty years later, the number of Afghan refugees is exponentially bigger and Afghanistan is farther from peace than it has ever been. What has the United States gained? The arms lobby and all those who benefit from wars have made huge profits. The United States has gained nothing because the United States is its people. Thousands of its people have died in Afghanistan and thousands more have been traumatized. In addition, people have paid for the war with their taxes.

Becoming involved in a project that makes you believe you are part of a larger goal must always be examined thoroughly. Some people are experts in making others die and pay for their selfish interests. These people are called war mongers.

[The writer, Shirin, a peace educator with over two decades of experience working with children, universities, places of worship and neighborhood initiatives, is Co-Director at Peace Vigil, Washington.]

For all the latest News, Opinions and Views, download ummid.com App.

Select Language To Read in Urdu, Hindi, Marathi or Arabic.

Google News

Share this page

 Post Comments
Note: By posting your comments here you agree to the terms and conditions of www.ummid.com