by Barry Edelson
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All the King's Horses
and All the King's Men

The never-ending calamity of 9/11


"We have met the enemy and he is us."

– Pogo (Walt Kelly)




It is generally acknowledged that in the course of current events it is impossible to discern the outlines of history, impossible to know what shape our transitory travails will take in the long view of human exertion. In the aftermath of a momentous incident, we are exhorted to do the one thing we are most ill-equipped to do, which is to wait: to consider the daily news stream as "the first draft of history", and to give the passage of time its opportunity to decide just how momentous the moment truly is, let alone reveal its larger meaning, if any, in the context of our ceaseless life.

We are indeed prone to the conviction, born of self-importance, that whatever we may be experiencing in the passing hour must be of great significance, by sheer virtue of the fact that we are experiencing it. And yet, some events are so obviously monumental that their magnitude strikes us like lightning. Whatever we can say about the attacks of September 11, 2001, we were convinced as soon as it happened that it was a defining event in the chronicles of our country and of the world (this being America). We knew that it could not help but change things, and that there was no going back to the way things were before.

But what did we really know right away that has actually turned out to be true? How much of what we felt in those brutal first days even remains within us? Can we honestly claim, for example, to harbor the same unalloyed love of country that caused the Stars and Stripes to sprout like spring flowers from every crack and crevice of our grieving streets? The unity that we experienced, so powerfully evocative in that instant, proved as elusive as the wind, and as shallow as a deathbed conversion.

It seemed obvious, even as the smoke from towers still wafted across the New York region, that Islamic fundamentalism posed a real, but not existential, threat. Jihadists could take down buildings and cause considerable local havoc, but they could not send an expeditionary force to storm our beaches, or cause us to suffer sustained aerial bombardment. While we returned to our usual business as if we understood this, as if we truly knew that we were safer than we at first believed, our government's response was out of all proportion to the event itself. We committed the classic twin mistakes of overcompensating for failing to see it coming, and making intense preparations to prevent from happening the very event that already happened. Like the body's response to a virus, it's not the pathogen that kills us, but our excessive reaction to it. In the process, we have been grossly and permanently disfigured.

Many also genuinely believed, if only briefly, that 9/11 would be another Pearl Harbor, a singular catastrophe that would bind the country in harmony and propel us to a new era of greatness. It was hard to resist the comparison with the previous and only other large-scale attack on the United States, but it says more about the outsized position of World War II in the public memory than about the 9/11 attacks themselves. The superficial similarities are obvious — the surprise, the shock, the horror — but in our response we never remotely mustered the same resolve. Unlike the enormous burden of WWII, in which the nation mobilized to fight wars of unprecedented size on two major fronts, the sacrifice of 9/11 has not been widely shared. In the one instance, the government commandeered whole industries in a life-and-death campaign to build weapons of war. In the other, life soon returned more or less to normal for nearly everyone, political leaders included. President Roosevelt told Americans to brace for a long struggle; President Bush told us to go shopping. And shop we did.

During World War II, the news was a constant drumbeat of death and destruction. There were many, many days when the losses were greater than at Pearl Harbor or on 9/11, and many worrisome defeats before the tide of the fighting turned decisively in our favor. We have certainly not experienced this degree of ongoing trauma in the last 20 years, nor the sickening fear that we could actually lose our country to a foreign invader. While thousands of service members lost their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq, and tens of thousands of others remain physically and mentally scarred, the rest of us have been shielded from the pain of fighting these wars. The withdrawal from Afghanistan feels peculiarly disconnected from the event that precipitated it. "Mission Accomplished" long ago devolved into "Mission: Impossible", as the hunt for al Qaeda morphed into the kind of nation-building exercise that we swore we would never engage in. Among the many lessons of Vietnam that we never actually learned is that it is no more possible to engineer a democratic country to our liking in a distant and alien land than to engineer a habitable ecosystem on Mars. Even the Soviet Union, with its ideological indifference to human suffering, failed to make a dent in Afghanistan's atavistic traditions. Tribal warfare continues unabated, only with heavier weapons.

Bush and his cohort used to say that we had to fight the terrorist enemy "over there" so we wouldn't have to fight them "over here" (a morally bankrupt strategy, considering the hundreds of thousands of Afghan and Iraqi civilians who died in our wars). What made us think we could do better? Well, the post-war success of Japan and Germany, of course. Wrong war, wrong lesson.




Was it only fear, then, that impelled us toward a newfound kindness after 9/11? On the morning of the 12th, a car came to a dead stop in the middle of a very busy four-lane street to let us turn out of our driveway, something that never happened either before or since. Did our sense of common mission dissipate, and our compassion dry up, when that obsessive fear proved temporary, and it became apparent that life would indeed go on largely as before? Did we lose our sense of purpose when post-9/11 America meant longer lines at airport security and not much else, when the burden of sacrifice would fall only on the one percent with family members serving in the armed forces?

Thomas Friedman wrote an unforgettable column that fall entitled "Eastern Middle School", in which he reveled in the spectacle of a group of kids of many colors, his own daughter among them, singing in unison in a school gym in suburban Maryland. Diversity is something the terrorist ideologues despise about us, he wrote, our nation forged from many beliefs and identities. But what they don't understand is that this melange of races and ethnicities is precisely what makes us strong. E pluribus unum. Here is the source the spiritual values that the Islamists find lacking in us. Here is the proof before our tear-filled eyes. History is on our side, the side of justice and tolerance and liberty, and we're not going anywhere.

9/11 Memorial
A 9/11 Memorial in upstate New York.
We remember everything, and nothing.

It was sincere and deeply moving. And like many beautiful stories, we could only wish that it were true.

Instead, we are incontestably a more bifurcated nation than before: because the attacks of 9/11 were, for most of us, little more than an item in the news, rather than the patriotic rallying cry we expected; because the wars we fought in the aftermath, particularly in Iraq, became quickly and deeply unpopular; because our political culture in Washington had already ceased to function as an expression of the popular will; because journalism had mostly degenerated into just another form of loud and tacky entertainment, and was not up to the task of reporting during an era of such seriousness; and because the burgeoning universe of anti-social media amplified every tiny division in society into all-out conflict.

It became obvious at the end of the Cold War that as soon as America no longer faced a powerful external enemy, we turned rather quickly upon ourselves. The Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, carried out by white supremacists, happened almost exactly halfway between the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and September 11, 2001, the midway point between the end of one foreign conflict and the onset of the next. But because the latter one had little physical effect on the homeland, we rather swiftly returned our attention to our internal divisions and to stoking our hatred of one another. And, political persuasions aside, we have no shortage of divisions to rend us asunder, no lack of "others" to cast our contempt upon: race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, sexuality, disability.

It is as if we sit upon a great, boiling engine of hostility that must constantly find an object of enmity in someone or something other than ourselves. Fascists and Communists were enemies that could hold our attention and keep us more or less together for extended periods. But Islamic fundamentalism became just another domestic issue to squabble over, with phony alarms about sharia law being imposed and mosques opening down the street, nonsensical fears taking the place of conflicts of real consequence.




Our adversaries clearly understand these divisions only too well. Russian bots and Chinese hackers are exploiting our weaknesses, as enemies have always done to one another, and quite effectively. This is the battlefront on which the next war is already being fought, and by all appearances we are losing rather badly. The more we fight with one another, the happier they are in Tehran and Pyongyang. And we seem powerless to stop ourselves from falling into their trap.

Certainly Osama bin Laden was aware of these problems in our society, and though his view was not terribly sophisticated, it was more than wise enough for his purposes. In some ways, he understood us better than we seem to understand ourselves: that the only way America could be defeated was to induce it into defeating itself; that he did not therefore need a military organization the size of Imperial Japan's to shake the world's one remaining superpower to its core; that we were a society so devoid of serious purpose, so piously obsessed with trivialities (the Clinton impeachment was only three misspent years prior to 9/11), so easily distracted by vacuousness (consider reality TV and the annual Super Bowl half-time show, among innumerable other examples with lower ratings), and so riven by political pettiness that we are unable to hold a presidential election without insuperable acrimony (Bush v. Gore was also shortly before 9/11); and that we were already teetering on the edge of decline and needed only a push to send us tumbling like a clumsy colossus into an abyss from which we could never escape.

In a way, perhaps, 9/11 did not change us as much as it accelerated our descent down the self-destructive path in which we were headed already. It was like a powerful gust of wind behind a rider who is already losing his balance, or a giant bump on an already rocky road. In any event, it was decidedly a heavy thumb on the scales of history.

It is true that more people still flock to our shores than try to escape them. No one is clinging to the wheels of an airplane trying to get out of America and into Afghanistan. So why does the departure from Kabul feel so dreadful? Why do we call it an evacuation and not a victory lap? The arc of the last two decades is book-ended by fear: at one end the fallen towers, shadow figures emerging from clouds of toxic ash, a nation reeling and uncertain, and at the other the ramshackle conclusion of the war launched in reaction, an escape haunted by desperation, and the specter of death and violence no less acute than before it all started.

After 20 years, the nation is much less certain and much more divided than it was before we embarked on our long mission of self-immolation. We have indeed changed in ways that we did not foresee then, and not for the better: twisted and deformed into a grotesque image of our former selves, a querulous, materialistic, self-obsessed people with more power than sense, pursuing wars against extremists abroad while hunting down heretics and idolizing zealots and demagogues at home. Like prosperity, patriotism conceals a multitude of sins, and beneath the fleeting unity that followed 9/11 lurked all the faults of a nation that has never properly reckoned with its past. As any student in Psychology 101 knows, you can bury your problems, but they won't stay buried forever. We can't even fight a public health crisis without resorting to stereotypes. America's Covid-19 body count is beyond a terrorist's wildest imagination, and, once again, we did it mostly to ourselves.

In the nearly instantaneous debate that ensued after 9/11 about the balance between security and freedom, a CIA official was asked in a television interview which civil liberties Americans should expect to surrender for the sake of protecting the homeland from further attacks. "None," he replied flatly. If we can't protect the homeland while still having our freedoms, he said, then the nation won't be worth fighting for. It need hardly be said that we paid him no attention. We just shrugged off the exponential expansion of the surveillance state, having already surrendered our privacy to the Internet, but we send death threats to school board members who think kids should wear masks in classrooms. The struggle goes on within these shores, and no amount of airport security will protect us from each other.


September 7, 2021
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All writings on this site are copyrighted by Barry Edelson. Reprinting by permission only.