Note: this piece will meander between personal narrative and editorializing. Pardon the erratic format.
September 11, 2001 was supposed to be just another ordinary day for me. I would get up, get showered and dressed, go to class, go to work, then come home and go to bed. I was a sophomore in college at the time. I lived with my mother, stepfather, and my younger sister and brother, in rural Indiana. New York City was an alien place I’d never been and didn’t think I’d ever see in person.
It’s odd what details you remember about a day when something profoundly unexpected happens. There are those moments in history where everyone can tell you where they were and what they were doing: when humans first walked on the Moon; when JFK was shot; when Dr. Martin Luther King was shot; when Reagan was shot; when the Berlin Wall fell. (It probably says more about me than anyone else that the events I think of tend involve people being killed.) For Millennials like myself, I suppose 9/11 was that moment. I was already up and dressed that morning. Everyone else had gone off to school or work, so I was home alone. Remembering something I had been meaning to do, I grabbed a PC game that had a cracked CD case, picked up one of the new jewel cases I’d bought the day before, and set about transferring the insert and booklet from the cracked case to the new one. It was while I was doing that that my mother called. She asked me if I’d turned on the TV today. “No. Why?” “You should turn it on. We’re under siege.”
I had no idea what she meant by that. The TV came on to one of the major news networks. The image was of the World Trade Center towers. One of them had a plume of smoke billowing from it. I don’t remember anything that was said on the phone after that. All my attention was on processing that visual and whatever it meant. A few minutes later, a second plane hit the second tower, which I saw happen live. I realized they couldn’t have been accidents, not to happen so close together like that. But who would do this, and why?
It was still a few hours before I had class, and I spent that time glued to the TV. All the major news networks were based in New York City, so their anchors and reporters were clearly shaken. Some came directly from the scene to report what they’d witnessed. People were jumping from the burning towers. One reporter came to the studio after the towers collapsed, covered in debris and barely holding himself together. The Pentagon was also struck, and another plane went down in Pennsylvania. It wasn’t much past 10AM and we didn’t know if it was over. There was talk of shooting down any more planes if they appeared to be hijacked, given that all planes were told to land at the nearest airport. I had to leave for class without being sure if anything else was going to happen.
The one class I remember from that day was my Sociology 101 class. No one was in much of a mood for the scheduled course material. Our professor instead introduced us to the concept of anomie. That term probably describes better than anything else what I felt at the time. I wasn’t angry or sad or anything like that. Everything just felt “off.” This was something happening hundreds of miles away from me. It wasn’t something that affected me directly, but it happened in the country where I lived, to people “like” me: fellow Americans. I was never a very patriotic sort of person, but I sensed that collective loss all the same.
The professor opened the class to discussion. People talked about their feelings for a while. It was a jumbled mess. I don’t remember much of what was said. After everyone quieted down, the professor dismissed us. It was soon announced that classes would be optional for the rest of the day, in light of events. It was a sensible decision. I don’t think anyone was going to learn much–our minds were on other matters.
I nevertheless had to report to work at 6PM, which was a computer lab on campus. Each computer lab needed someone to sign students in and out, offer technical and application support, and make sure no one stole anything (yes, people stole stuff out of the labs.) The girl I came in to relieve had no idea anything unusual had happened. I asked her if she’d seen the news today, and she said, “No.” I explained what had happened and she was sure I’d made it up as some sick joke. I told her to check out a TV or any news website and she’d see I wasn’t kidding.
I had a four hour shift that night. The lab was quiet. Most people didn’t feel like coming to use the computers. I spent the time reading news articles, though very little was yet known at that point. At the time, I was subscribed to CNN email alerts, which had flooded my inbox through the course of the day with lots of stories that turned out not to be true: a bomb had gone off at the State Department, the Washington Mall was on fire, mass shootings at shopping malls, etc. I was relieved to learn that they were all false reports and that the attacks essentially ended the moment Flight 93 crashed in a Pennsylvania cornfield.
President Bush addressed the country that night. He looked incredibly shaken. I don’t remember anything about what he said, though you can always read the transcript.
I remember the flurry of information that came out in the following days. We had a list of names. We knew al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden were behind it. We also knew that Afghanistan was harboring bin Laden himself, and we demanded that the Taliban turn him over immediately. The way that whole scenario played out is something I don’t think we give much thought to, but represents an unnecessary rush to action. The Taliban were not and are not “nice guys.” They’re radical zealots who gladly oppress anyone who doesn’t follow their brand of Islam. Even so, we were giving them money when they ruled Afghanistan, to support their efforts to eliminate opium production. We weren’t allies, but weren’t enemies, either. The Taliban apparently believed the US wanted to negotiate over bin Laden. After all, that’s how international politics are supposed to work: country A wants something from country B, country B tries to negotiate a good exchange for it, country A makes a counteroffer, and either you come to terms or you let it go. Instead, we demanded they give us bin Laden unconditionally, the Taliban asked for time to consider a response, and in a little more than week we’d decided the time for talk was “over” and it was time for “action.” We gave the Taliban no time to respond in good faith to our demands, nor even to locate and hand over bin Laden, as it’s unlikely he would have simply cooperated with such a demand.
So, less than a month after the attacks, we invaded. We roundly thrashed the Taliban and, for the most part, drove them out of the country. We teamed up with the Northern Alliance and began helping the Afghans form a new government. In practice, this government ended up having control over Kabul and not much else. The government in Kabul itself quickly became a hotbed of corruption and favor trading. A dozen years later, almost 15,000 American and allied troops are dead, and at least the same number of Afghan civilians have been killed by combat and insurgent attacks. A resurgent Taliban have rebuilt to the point that we have no choice but to give them a place at the bargaining table, and the government is still as corrupt as ever. We spent over a trillion dollars and there’s not much to show for it. Afghanistan remains about as much of a failed state as it was under the Taliban. Our rush to action cost tens of thousands of lives and a trillion dollars to bring about virtually no real benefit. An enormous waste.
That’s not even addressing everything that grew out of 9/11’s aftermath. Not even a day after the attacks, the Defense Department was at work looking for a way to pin it on Saddam Hussein as a pretext for an invasion of Iraq–something the Bush administration desired since before even coming to power. On top of being justified by outright lies and fabrications, the costs of the Iraq war are in some ways greater than Afghanistan. Almost 5000 coalition troops died, and estimates range from 100,000 to over a million total violent deaths resulted from the US-led invasion, subsequent occupation, and resulting insurgency and sectarian warfare. That war’s total costs are estimated to be in the neighborhood of $6 trillion once long-term costs of caring for wounded veterans are accounted for, which make up a large portion of that estimate. Today, Iraq continues to suffer daily bouts with insurgent violence and sectarian tensions always threaten the government’s stability. Ongoing crises in surrounding countries (such as Syria) have effects that spill over into Iraq, making the situation even more precarious. Once again, tremendous costs in human lives, resources, and dollars have added up to not very much.
No one would argue that Saddam Hussein or the Taliban were good guys that should be in charge anywhere. But war is a messy and unpredictable business, and in these two cases we rushed to war with poor justifications, poor intelligence, poor forward planning, no concern for expense or realistic objectives, and with the supreme arrogance to believe we could invade countries with no substantial democratic traditions and convert them into shining examples of American-style democracy and capitalism. Deposing a hostile regime with military equipment decades out of date is not that hard. Building a functional state out of its ashes, however, turns out to be very difficult. This is not a lesson we should have had to learn again, either. The only situations in which our efforts at nation-building have been successful were during periods of total war, when as many national resources as possible were thrown at the problem. Really, we have two examples to our credit: Germany and Japan, post-World War II. Efforts in Korea and Vietnam may not be considered nation-building per se. In the ’90s, we had Somalia and Haiti, both of which were at least nominally nation-building efforts, and both of which failed miserably due to a combination of not fully understanding the political situations into which we’d inserted ourselves and not putting sufficient resources into our interventions. Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated amply that even with great time and expense, turning failed states into modern democracies is an extremely dicey prospect, and one which we should never rush into, regardless of how justified we might feel. We certainly should not undertake such measures out of a sense of national pride or ego.
In addition to our failures in Afghanistan and Iraq, the legacy of 9/11 lives on in other ways: the federalization of airport security in the form of the TSA continues to inconvenience law-abiding travelers, and debatably violates the civil rights of people who are not under any suspicion; recent revelations regarding the NSA’s spying efforts show dramatic, virtually unchecked expansions, both at home and abroad, justified by 9/11 and enabled by cheap, ubiquitous computing technology; the assassination of American citizens without due process or trial is now a fact of life, executed under both Bush and Obama with virtually no outcry from the people; warrantless wiretapping and a whole slew of new legal and investigative tools give government officials ever more power to keep tabs on the people whom they are supposed to serve. As a people, we remain fearful and wounded. The Bush administration burned bridges with many of our allies, particularly over the war in Iraq. The UK–historically our staunchest ally–saw Tony Blair expend massive amounts of political capital in supporting that war, a mistake so embarrassing it’s made the UK unwilling to take any action in Syria, no matter how limited. We bomb other countries with impunity, even sending our troops into sovereign territory without permission (as we did with bin Laden.) Such behavior is generally considered an act of war, but we get away with it because we’re the US and no one dares stand up to us. The Obama administration has continued the worst excesses of the Bush years in terms of prosecuting the “war on terror.” All this is to say that the 9/11 mindset is our new normal, and it’s not just limited to our foreign relations and efforts to fight terrorism.
The 9/11 attacks deepened a nascent recession brought on by the dotcom bust. The Bush administration went into a spending frenzy. I’m sure we all remember those stimulus checks we got and then promptly spent on bills or new TVs? We needed to grow consumer spending, so we relaxed regulations on the banking and credit industries, allowing a vast housing and credit bubble to grow unchecked, which provoked a global financial crisis that decimated our economy and has left a whole generation of workers out in the cold. Would all that have happened without 9/11? It’s hard to say. Maybe it would have. But the fear we felt as a nation on that day seems to continue to plague us and every decision we make. It’s why talk of cutting defense spending is viewed as downright traitorous, even when we seem not to have any credible enemies to defend against. It’s as if we longed for the days of Cold War paranoia and 9/11 gave us the opportunity to live in fear again.
Circling back to the immediate aftermath of 9/11 itself: we also had no interest in understanding why anyone would want to do this to us. It was inconceivable that we could, in any way, have provoked this. In no way did we deserve it–who deserves to suffer such egregious violence?–but we held ourselves completely blameless and innocent, as if the day’s attacks occurred in a vacuum for no real reason. 9/11 was blowback for decades of reckless foreign policy in the Middle East. Robert Fisk elaborated on this point a couple years ago, noting that the 9/11 Commission softballed what they found to be the central motive behind the attacks: US support for Israel. While I think the US should support Israel’s right to exist, that support should not be unconditional and we should certainly not condone ongoing settlement efforts or violent, oppressive behavior toward Palestinians. The denial of a Palestinian state is itself a completely unacceptable state of affairs. And given that US support for Israel is cited as the primary motivation for the 9/11 attacks, is that not something everyone deserves to know, so it can inform our policies going forward? By no means do I believe we should abandon Israel as an ally, but when that alliance can have such profound consequences, we must go into it with our eyes wide open and not pretend nothing bad can come of it. As Fisk said, to do so is simply lying to ourselves.
Ultimately, I don’t believe we learned anything from 9/11. We Americans seem to like living in fear. We like reliving our traumas, whether they led to victory or defeat. We also have no stomach for self-examination or introspection. We’ll complain and argue, but we won’t change. The 9/11 narrative is and apparently always shall be that bad people attacked us for no reason and we responded by trying to bring democracy to the Middle East, and those ingrates just wanted to kill us and blow people up, so screw ’em. That’s what we’re left with. If we learned anything, it was all the wrong lessons. It was yet more validation of American exceptionalism and self-styled superiority. We’re just too good for this world, and that’s why “they” hate us, whoever “they” are. We don’t understand why people don’t like it when we try to “bring” them democracy and capitalism and freedom. We don’t understand why the world doesn’t appreciate us telling everyone what to do. We just don’t understand. And we don’t want to.
So, on this twelfth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, I would ask you to take a moment to try to understand, to think about what happened that day, what led from it, and how it got us to where we are now, and if that’s a place we really want to be. And if not, where do we go from here? Do we want to simply reopen the wound to our national pride, or do we want to stop and seriously think about why this happened, how our policies have consequences, and how our arrogance and thirst for vengeance results in the deaths of real people who’ve done nothing to wrong us? We are not blameless and we are not innocent, and we need to take responsibility for our actions, or those actions will continue to come back to haunt us, over and over.
9/11 Timeline was a decent resource for nailing down the sequence of events, but by no means do I accept a lot of the conspiracy hoohah listed there.