It is almost impossible to believe that it has been 22 years since 9/11. For those of my generation, the September 11 attacks were a defining moment. But at the same time, September 11 feels like it was a lifetime ago. We have all lived through so much over the intervening two decades – wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Trump Presidency and its never-ending cavalcade of scandal, COVID-19, January 6. As Amy Zeigart wrote it The Atlantic on the twentieth anniversary, the up-and-coming generations only perceive 9/11 through the lens of history.
What we have not lived through is another mass-casualty attack against the United States. Twenty-two years ago it seemed like 9/11 could have just been a prelude. The anthrax attacks later that year were a dire harbinger of the horrors to come.
Those horrors never came. There were no more major attacks—no more hijackings, no biological attacks, no dirty bombs, no chemical attacks. Yes, there were small-scale attacks, but those barely rated in the horrible shadow of everyday American violence. That we remember 9/11 as an isolated horror is a testament to the men and women here at home and abroad that sacrificed so much to ensure a safer world for everyone.
It is true that some of the things we did in the post-September 11 period proved to be destructive and unnecessary. Airport security remains mostly an exercise in security theater. The PATRIOT Act dramatically expanded America’s surveillance state and was often used far beyond what it was intended to do. Despite the wise calls of the Bush Administration at the time to separate out Islam in general from the attackers, the rise of anti-Muslim hatred was both counterproductive and against the spirit of unity that should have reigned for all at that time.
Today, the biggest threat this country faces is not an external enemy. It is not “Islamofascism.” It comes from good-old American-branded fascism. What al-Qaeda never did in 2001 or afterward was shake the foundations of this country to its core. Osama bin Laden could not and did not destroy American democracy. Instead, we have ended up doing it ourselves.
In those dark times when the World Trade Center’s towers smouldered, our country came together. Even during the threat of COVID we never achieved anywhere that sense of unity, at least not for long. We mourned together, we resolved together, we prayed together, we cheered together. That we have lost that sense of national unity in less than a generation only compounds the tragedy of September 11, 2001.