9/11 Turns 20

Some old and new thoughts on our national day of trauma.

It is, as you’ve surely heard by now, the 20th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. I am reluctant to contribute anything to the commemoration of this day because I increasingly find the commemoration of this day to be deeply damaging to the American national psyche. At the same time I also feel like I should have something to say, since this newsletter deals so often with the unending repercussions of that day. And I do have something to say.

In fact, I already said it, two years ago. It was 9/11’s 18th anniversary that I found compelling, and while I understand the significance of any anniversary that ends in a 0 I still believe the day upon which it became possible for a person who wasn’t alive on 9/11 to be enlisted into service in one of the wars that day spawned was truly the date on which the War on Terror became a grotesque parody of itself. So I am republishing, with light edits, the essay I published on September 11, 2019, with some additional remarks to follow.

It’s the anniversary of the Worst Thing That Has Ever Happened In The History Of Mankind, and not just any anniversary. We’ve now reached the point where there are kids old enough to enlist in the military or go off to college who weren’t alive when the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked on September 11, 2001. Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to take stock of what we’ve been doing ever since.

It’s hard to remember the panic that gripped people in the days and weeks after the 9/11 attacks. Almost 3000 people had been killed in the space of a couple of hours. It was the worst attack on US soil since Pearl Harbor. The attacks rattled the collective American consciousness to its core. Naturally, people started worrying about what might be next. What would the terrorists do for an encore? Nukes? Anthrax? Poison gas attacks? Anything and everything was on the table. Imaginations ran wild and invariably to some very dark places.

Well, 18 years later we can happily say that, apart from a brief anthrax scare, none of those terrible things happened. At least, not in the United States. Instead, what we’ve experienced over the past 18 years has been an extended spasm of rage, as the United States has sought to make the rest of the world pay for the harm we suffered on that day. And by “harm,” I don’t really mean the physical damage or even the loss of life. The real trauma that America suffered on 9/11 was to its collective self-image, its belief in its own overwhelming power and control of the rest of the world. That’s the pain we’ve been trying to avenge all this time. The 9/11 attacks pulled back the curtain and we didn’t very much like what we saw.

So we’ve spent 18 years and counting lashing out at perceived enemies both at home and abroad, and the toll has been, to say the least, appalling. Our thirst for vengeance has caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people over the past 18 years, multiple times the number who were killed in the 9/11 attacks. Do we care? I believe some of us do, but I suspect most of us don’t. Certainly the people who performatively take to social media every year on the anniversary of 9/11 to recount Where They Were and How They Felt on that day (you know who they are) believe that nothing that’s happened since 9/11 could possibly be as horrifying as what they experienced. Which means that, on some level, they believe the lives we’ve taken around the world since then were hundreds of times less valuable, less worthy, than the lives we lost at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

It’s not just the death toll. Since 9/11 we’ve arrogated unto ourselves the right to conduct aerial bombing pretty much anywhere we deem necessary. We’ve acquiesced—cheered, even—as our government has erected one of the most massive and intrusive surveillance networks in human history. We’ve thrown people into detention facilities indefinitely, with no intention of honoring their basic human rights. We’ve “tortured some folks,” as Barack Obama once said while he was explaining why he wasn’t going to prosecute the torturers. Most perniciously, we’ve accepted that war is an inevitable and permanent state of being, that our government may be fighting an undefined conflict with an undefined enemy with an undefined end goal for the rest of our lives. For the rest of our children’s lives.

And for what? Yeah, al-Qaeda, at least its core group, is a shell of its former self (though it’s not totally gone). I’m not one to say that “Osama bin Laden won,” because he’s dead and I doubt that was part of his plan. But I will say so what? Al-Qaeda’s ideology hasn’t gone anywhere, and neither have its affiliates in Yemen, North and West Africa, etc. Our invasion of Iraq, the most senseless part of the senseless War on Terror, created the Islamic State, which is more violent than al-Qaeda. We’ve legitimized the “threat” of terrorism as a catch-all for any rotten authoritarian regime that wants to brutalize a minority group, from the Gulf states to India to China to Myanmar and, yes, right back here to the United States, where the War on Terror mindset has seeped thoroughly into our national consciousness around immigration. Would we have elected a president who throws migrant children into cages in internment camps had we not responded to 9/11 the way we did? Would the racist far right have grown strong enough to take over our politics had it not been able to feed on our post-9/11 Islamophobia all these years? I have my doubts.

So, hey, happy anniversary. All I can say is, if you’re in the US and still feeling the trauma of September 11, 2001, imagine how the rest of the world feels about it.

So it’s been two years, and I will allow to feeling a little less angry about our annual retraumatization today than I felt then. Maybe it’s because we just, finally, ended the longest individual conflict that 9/11 wrought (the War on Terror marches ever on, of course). Maybe it’s because, 20 years on, my impression is that the memory of the September 11 attacks doesn’t hold the same grim power it once held over so many Americans. I don’t know.

But the national solemnization of this day, the need our political and media elites have to relive it essentially minute by minute once a year, still bothers me, saddens me. It’s not that I think people should “get over it” or anything like that. Countless Americans suffered genuine trauma that day. Many lost loved ones, leaving holes that can never be filled. Many barely survived the attacks and may carry the scars, physical or otherwise, of that day for the rest of their lives. Many more witnessed the attacks in person. Most of us didn’t experience 9/11 that directly, but we did see it happen on television, either in real time or replayed, over and over and over again, in the days, weeks, and now years since. I’m not a psychologist and I have no idea what effect the broadcast and rebroadcast of those events had on the American people, but it seems to me that the mass witnessing of the attacks is what separates 9/11 from its closest analogue in American history, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. That was a national trauma, but it wasn’t one to which most people truly paid witness. September 11 was. That has to mean something, even if I can’t tell you what exactly it is.

What saddens me about this perverse national holiday we’ve created is that it hinders whatever chance there is that most Americans, those of us who didn’t experience 9/11’s effects directly, can finally put that day into some historical context. I don’t think there’s any question that’s intentional. A populace that’s made to relive something like 9/11 every year is a populace that’s probably less likely to question the priorities of a government that spends over $1 trillion per year on “national defense” but is incapable of managing foreseeable threats like, say, a global pandemic. It’s more likely to listen unquestioningly when its political leaders and largest media outlets talk about vague “threats” emanating from all corners of the globe. It’s less likely to wonder why the loss of almost 3000 American lives had to be repaid with the deaths of, conservatively estimated, over 900,000 people including almost 400,000 civilians.

I will confess it’s been fairly easy for me to find a different meaning in September 11, and that’s because it’s my daughter’s birthday. She was born several years after the September 11 but she’s old enough now to know what happened on that day and why it’s such a big deal, and yet the only real power the day holds for her is in the party she gets to have (or parties this year, for reasons I don’t entirely understand) and the gifts she gets to receive, and in the knowledge that she’s another year closer to driving a car, which is its own kind of trauma for me.

I could tell you what it was like when my wife and I found out she would have to be delivered by c-section and that the only available day was September 11. We agonized over what it would mean to give our child That Day as her birthday. But the truth is, it’s never really mattered. For us, September 11 is first and foremost about the day we brought our child into the world. I know not everybody can turn to a happy memory of September 11 to help ease the trauma of 9/11/01, but surely many people can. And if I have a point here, it’s that the sooner most of us can think of September 11 as more or less another day, on which some bad things but also some good things have happened over the years, the better off we’ll be as a nation and the better off the rest of the world will be for it.

Thanks for reading.