I was 19 years old when 9/11 happened, and I didn’t know what to make of it.
Now, I think I do.
It took a few weeks after the terror attacks for our government to launch an invasion of one country. Not the country in which the attacks were planned (Germany), and not the country from which most of the attackers came (Saudi Arabia). But at least we did invade the country that was ruled by a regime that was harboring the terror network itself. Our troops are still there, presumably contemplating the lessons of history.
It took another year and a half for our government to invade the next country: this one having nothing at all to do with the attacks. More than 4,000 Americans died and tens of thousands more were wounded. Estimates of Iraqi casualties are in the hundreds of thousands. President Obama withdrew troops in 2011 but today there are still thousands of “defense contractors” there. The invasion deposed a dictator, destabilized a region, and at least in part led to the rise of ISIS.
Meanwhile. It took 18 years for our government to permanently fund the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, a bill to pay for the healthcare costs of the 9/11 first responders. Eighteen years for Congress to figure out how to pay for the healthcare of the men and women who put their own lives at risk to clean up and search for survivors. The men who George W. embraced and stood side by side with on the rubble, with a loudspeaker, promising to avenge the attacks. Them.
It’s shameful. As John Stewart said a few months ago during Congressional testimony. If you haven’t already watched:
In the time in between 9/11 and that hearing, our government managed to authorize torture, launch a program for the warrantless wiretapping of millions on Americans, set up an extralegal detention center in Cuba to indefinitely detain suspects without trial or due process, and in myriad other ways relinquish America’s standing as a beacon of liberal values and human rights. All of it before paying for the healthcare of the first responders.
Why did we do it, besides callous indifference?
We were afraid.
I’m not the first to suggest that the 9/11 terror attacks were wildly successful not only because they knocked down the buildings and hit the Pentagon, but also because of the over-reaction the attacks provoked. America did have a brief moment of worldwide goodwill in the aftermath - “Nous sommes tous américains,” proclaimed Le Monde - but we squandered that goodwill, and it’s never been the same.
Before those attacks was my youth. After them: my adulthood.
The 9/11 attacks exposed a fearful nation, a nation unable to distinguish spectacle from reality, unable to discern true threats from imagined ones. We are a nation that, when we see a child injured on a playground, decides to ban all concrete on all playgrounds. We don’t teach our children resiliency, because we’ve lost that quality in ourselves. Instead, we keep the children locked up at home, or pass them from one adult supervised activity after another.
I digress to our fears as parents because I think they are the same as our collective fear. Only an unconfident, fearful nation overreacts the way we did. You wouldn’t know it for all of George W.’s swagger. But even cowboys can mask weakness with bullying and a big gun.
Obama was the opposite: cool-headed to a T, even when he had every reason to act out. We weren’t good enough for him. I remember a statement he made to the press in 2016, when alt-right trolls who hadn’t made a difficult decision in their lives were criticizing him for not using the term “radical Islam.” On this anniversary of 9/11, it’s worth quoting a bit from Obama’s response:
So there’s no magic to the phrase “radical Islam.” It’s a political talking point; it's not a strategy. And the reason I am careful about how I describe this threat has nothing to do with political correctness and everything to do with actually defeating extremism. Groups like ISIL and al Qaeda want to make this war a war between Islam and America, or between Islam and the West. They want to claim that they are the true leaders of over a billion Muslims around the world who reject their crazy notions. They want us to validate them by implying that they speak for those billion-plus people; that they speak for Islam. That’s their propaganda. That's how they recruit. And if we fall into the trap of painting all Muslims with a broad brush and imply that we are at war with an entire religion -- then we’re doing the terrorists' work for them.
Bolding is mine. And here’s one more part:
Are we going to start treating all Muslim Americans differently? Are we going to start subjecting them to special surveillance? Are we going to start discriminating against them because of their faith? We’ve heard these suggestions during the course of this campaign. Do Republican officials actually agree with this? Because that's not the America we want. It doesn't reflect our democratic ideals. It won’t make us more safe; it will make us less safe -- fueling ISIL’s notion that the West hates Muslims, making young Muslims in this country and around the world feel like no matter what they do, they're going to be under suspicion and under attack. It makes Muslim Americans feel like their government is betraying them. It betrays the very values America stands for.
We've gone through moments in our history before when we acted out of fear -- and we came to regret it. We've seen our government mistreat our fellow citizens. And it has been a shameful part of our history.
So, what is the legacy of 9/11? What meaning does it hold for me? What place in our national consciousness does this terrible day still hold?
I’m afraid the significance of 9/11 is as a mile-marker that hastened the decline of America’s moral standing in the world. I’m afraid 9/11, and our reaction to it, is as an example not of American resiliency and fortitude but instead of American impetuousness and weakness. There may yet be terror networks in the world capable of launching another 9/11-like attack on our shores. But the America that we thought existed before 9/11 is dead and buried. Or maybe it never existed at all.
Which means… if we want a country with a moral compass we can be proud of, we’ll have to build it anew.