Twenty years after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, what’s striking about America’s most cataclysmic day of the new millennium is how personal it still feels after all these years. I think for most of us, the striking, eternal image of that second plane striking the South Tower of the World Trade Center competes with the little things from that day. I remember postponing my inevitable journey to the newsroom to sit for 10 minutes under a tree out back with our not-quite-trained golden retriever puppy (Rosie, RIP), trying to reconcile the beauty of a royal-blue September sky with the horror that had just occurred in Lower Manhattan.
I next remember mass chaos just trying to get into the old Daily News office at Broad and Callowhill. It took 10 minutes to get down one block of Vine Street because cars were filled with people who didn’t seem to know why they’d left work or where they were going. Then my editors gave me an impossible assignment — 12 hours to assemble the big-picture story of what had just happened, even as we had no idea who did the attack, or whether the death toll was hundreds, or tens of thousands. Rather than Churchillian bombast, I wrote simply about World Trade Center workers who were gossiping about the Yankees or the weather when they saw the plane.
“It was 8:46 a.m.,” I wrote as night fell on 9/11, “and America would never be the same again.”
Looking back two decades later, I can’t decide which is weirder — that I wrote this in the darkness of that confusing day, or that somehow I got it right. America was changed forever and — despite those initial days where we hoped the sadness and the rubble would give rise to national unity and a sense of purpose that had felt missing in the detached irony and greed of the go-go 1990s — for the most part it has changed for the worse. Those drivers going every which way at cross purposes on Vine Street weren’t just a traffic jam, but a metaphor for the road ahead.
Any national unity dissolved rapidly into fear and paranoia, which a cynical new government in Washington preferred to exploit rather than tamp down — the better to plant our flag in oil-rich lands abroad and silence any dissent here at home. Those bad tidings — and the conspiratorial mindset we embraced in the wake of 9/11 — would be turned against nations that had nothing to do with the attacks, against immigrants in general, against legitimate protest, and finally, inevitably, against one another. The era that started with the Islamic radicals who hijacked Flight 93 failing to reach the U.S. Capitol dome ended with American fanatics breaching its rotunda. The late Osama bin Laden could not have drafted a better script for his evil ambitions.
And let’s be clear: The ultimate blame for 9/11 rests squarely with those who planned and executed an attack that killed 2,977 innocent people in the name of religious fanaticism and a Middle Eastern power trip — bin Laden and his associates in al-Qaeda. It’s impossible to write about that day without either a full-throated condemnation of the banal evil behind September 11 and also our heartbroken memories of the decent everyday people — firefighters and executive assistants and cops and stockbrokers — who lost their lives because of that immorality.
In responding to their deaths, some positive things occurred — including the killing of bin Laden and the minimizing of at least the old, original al-Qaeda. Despite the inevitable carping from air travelers, an airport-security regime that’s successfully prevented any hijackings for these two decades has been quite an achievement. It’s also a reminder that America could have spent the last 20 years only doing what was necessary — shoring up our anti-terrorism regime on U.S. soil, and right-sizing our role in the world. Instead, our hubris — which was actually masking our inner fears — that America must respond to any threat to our daydreams of exceptionalism with massive force caused us to double down on military imperialism with tragic consequences, in a tortured odyssey that led us full circle to last month’s chaotic scenes at the Kabul airport.
That fish stunk from the head. The post-9/11 history of America might have played out differently if then-President George W. Bush hadn’t indulged the neo-conservative wet dreams of those like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld to exploit a “new Pearl Harbor” to project American power on a global stage, preferably in the world’s oil-producing regions to keep the spigot of climate-destroying fossil fuels wide open.
Textbooks on political propaganda will, for centuries, study how everyday citizens’ righteous anger and fears over 9/11 were manipulated to win support for invading an oil-rich nation, in Iraq, that had nothing to do with the 2001 attack, and for spending $2.2 trillion and 20 years in Afghanistan on a mission that should have been measured in months. But perhaps even worse, in the long run, was the Cheney doctrine that America needed to project strength in the world by establishing a gulag archipelago of black prison sites where the inhumane dark art of torture was (counter-productively) practiced — its immoral center a concentration camp at Gitmo. It was only natural that this polar opposite of a “kinder, gentler America” would bleed into other areas.
America was never the same again after 9/11 because the new “homeland-security state” inevitably criminalized immigration, so that a nation that once promised to welcome the world’s political and economic refugees yearning to breathe free instead spent billions on border walls and turned Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, into a secret police force of deportation.
America was never the same again after 9/11 because homeland security also became a buzzword for stifling political dissent in our own streets, especially as all the surplus military equipment created by our costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan found its way to urban and even small-town police departments, who policed protests with riot gear and mass arrests. When the Department of Homeland Security sent a federal military force in 2020 to Portland to battle anti-racism protesters, there was an aura of inevitability that the monster of 9/11 had been turned against our own citizens.
America was never the same again after 9/11 because the blatant lies that were told to U.S. citizens to invent the case for invading Iraq, easily swallowed by the mainstream media in a shameful moment of jingoistic cheerleading, created the petri dish of cynicism and distrust that allowed conspiracy theories to nuture and grow, first about 9/11 itself but eventually about matters as diverse as “the Big Lie” of the 2020 election or COVID-19 vaccines. The cable-TV news regime that grew in the wake of 9/11 often fueled misinformation instead of quelling it.
Let’s be clear: America also had its problems that go far beyond September 11, including the abuses and gross inequities of late-stage capitalism, structural racism and sexism (which sometimes intersected with 9/11 paranoia), and the cultural resentments of a broken, faux meritocracy that caused our college/non-college divide. I’d argue it was these issues that produced the demagogic neo-fascism of Donald Trump, but Trump also used the sharpened language of “the war on terror” to demonize immigrants and Muslims on his warped path to the White House.
Ironically, Trump promised voters he would dismantle our most visible remnant of 9/11 — the endless “forever war” in Afghanistan, the Middle East, and elsewhere, but even as POTUS he was unable to buck the military-industrial complex to pull it off. Over 20 years, America wasted trillions on these pointless conflicts that could have been spent — in an era of deadlier floods, wildfires and drought — on wind and solar energy and electric cars, or on eliminating child poverty and food insecurity here in the “homeland,” or on not dismantling the public health infrastructure that would have helped us respond faster and smarter to the coronavirus. Does anybody actually feel safer today than they did on September 10, 2001?
In the smoke and haze of the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, America bought into myths that we could somehow win a global war against an idea — “terror” — and somehow retain our prestige and power in the world, when the exact opposite has occurred. A 20-year “forever war” has bankrupted America, economically but also morally. But in his common-sense attempt to end this, President Biden seems to be paying a steep political price. The departure from Afghanistan may have been chaotic and ugly, but it gave the United States the bad-tasting medicine it needed on the 20th anniversary of 9/11 to finally begin driving in the right direction: A dose of reality.
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