9/11, An Anniversary of Unity or Division?

The U.S. needs to make a serious appraisal assessing our bridges—of unity—and walls—of hate and division. What benefits, if any, are provided by increasing isolationism? Do they outweigh the blessings of collaboration, connection, and friendship?

Sadly, on this terrible anniversary, I predict a showcase of divisive rhetoric from a White House bent on tearing a country apart.

The world changed on September 11, 2001. The majority of my university students are not old enough to have any memory of life before the terrorist attacks. This creates a real challenge since I never want to tell students how to think; my job is helping them think for themselves. But there is truth: the white supremacist and nationalist groups—that Trump refuses to condemn—present the greatest threats for domestic terrorism and violence; that Trump and his policies of racism and xenophobia are used as recruitment tools by groups like ISIS; that Trump’s words and ideology are cited in manifestos and as motivation for hate crimes and mass shootings in the U.S. and abroad; he has told more than 12,000 lies as President…

In 2001 Americans were much more connected. The tragedy brought people together—there was compassion, charity, and empathy everywhere you looked. There were isolated and heavily condemned acts of revenge violence; those hateful acts did not show the American character. Admittedly there was fear in the air; the myth that having the largest military on earth guaranteed safety and security had been decimated.

On September 11theveryone has the chance to reflect on American leadership. Choosing to listen with a fixed mindset will only act to confirm preconceived notions. Alternatively, one can engage with a growth mindset, by accepting and inviting dialogue. This position allows revisiting thoughts and beliefs to when improvements can be made. I tell students: “You get to choose your mindset, you get to decide whether or not you invite or refuse dialogue, but whatever you chose, and whenever you choose it, I want you to take a second step. Make an assessment of the mindset you chose. Did you choose the right mindset for the situation?”

I do hope my predictions are wrong. The world is burning, there are multiple disasters and complex humanitarian emergencies, climate chaos threatens life for future generations, etc. … strong leadership and collaborative unity will be necessary just to address natural disasters. If we cannot come together in a coordinated and robust response in these cases, then there is even less hope that we can come together for the human-caused disasters, conflicts, and war.

The problem is that there are so many examples of Trump sowing the seeds of division and refusing to water the seeds of peace and opportunity. He seems unable to free himself from his own ego. He is more likely to double-down on his lie that he was “down there” with the first responders, or to assert his wall would have stopped it, than he is to acknowledge pain and suffering. Empathy could bring people together but bringing people together does not make the drama he wants. He apparently had talks with the Taliban planned—ho hum—and then dramatically cancelled. He couldn’t make it to Poland—he instead dramatically cancelled to attend to Hurricane Dorrian—and idiotically congratulated Polandon being invaded by Nazis 80 years ago.

There may not be an opportunity for Trump to reconcile with the Taliban. But he could learn from Germany’s President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who did make it to Poland. During a ceremony in the city of Wielun, one of the first Nazi bombings on September 1, 1939, he said: “I stand before you, those who have survived, before the descendants of the victims, the old and the young residents of Wielun, I am humbled and grateful. I bow to the victims of the attack in Wielun, I pay tribute to the Polish victims of German tyranny and I ask for forgiveness.”

Perhaps, Trump could acknowledge victims in ways that reflect their past and continued suffering. He would also be well served to understand how empathy fits into relationships. On December 7, 1970, German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s simple action of falling to his knees—Warsaw Genuflection (Kniefall von Warschau)— during a visit to a monument to the Nazi-era Warsaw Ghetto Uprising helped reunite the countries; it is likely a reason he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971. Rhetoric is a starting point, then it needs to be matched with action and policy.

Trump seems incapable of doing much beyond stoking the flames of racial hatred and pejorative animus. He just needs to spend time putting those he is duty-bound to serve ahead of himself. The bottom line: instead of addressing trauma and healing, Trump will find an opportunity to make himself central (“I am the Chosen One”) he can exploit, again. Which lie will it be? Will he talk about thousands of Muslims, again; will he say he was there, again; will he again brag aboutthe tallest building in New York (which he boasted about right after the September 11 attacks 18 years ago, though it was a lie). In all manner of suffering Trump makes himself into the spectacle: he would run inunarmed and stop the shooting (even with his draft-dodging bone spursrevealed as a total hoax), he could save us, his crowd size, the votes he received.

I credit him for the time he used acue cardgiven to him by smarter staff when meeting with school shooting victims, which read: “1. What would you most want me to know about your experience?” And “5. I hear you.” At least he attempted empathy and validation.

My cue card has me expressing empathy for Americans and the world as we suffer each day of this non-ministering administration.

Wim Laven has a PhD in International Conflict Management, he teaches courses in political science and conflict resolution, and is on the Executive Boards of the International Peace Research Association and the Peace and Justice Studies Association.