It was “the day that changed everything,” until it didn’t. Even in the immediate aftermath, you could see that 9/11 was less momentous for some Americans who were at a safe remove from the carnage and grief. By late September, the ratings at CNN, then 24/7 terror central, had fallen by more than 70 percent. As I traveled across the country that grim fall to fulfill a spectacularly ill-timed book tour, I discovered that the farther west I got, the more my audiences questioned me as though I were a refugee from some flickering evening-news hot spot as distant and exotic as Beirut. When I described the scent of burning flesh wafting through Manhattan, or my sister-in-law’s evacuation by the National Guard from her ash-filled apartment on John Street, I was greeted with polite yet unmistakable expressions of disbelief.
Now, ten years later, it’s remarkable how much our city, like the country, has moved on. Decades are not supposed to come in tidy packages mandated by the calendar’s arbitrary divisions, but this decade did. For most Americans, the cloud of 9/11 has lifted. Which is not to say that a happier national landscape has been unveiled in its wake.
Three red-letter days in 2011 have certified the passing of the 9/11 decade as we had known it. The first, of course, was the killing of Osama bin Laden. We demand that our stories have beginnings, middles, and ends. While bin Laden’s demise wasn’t the final curtain for radical-Islamic terrorism, it was a satisfying resolution of the classic “dead or alive” Western that George W. Bush had dangled so tantalizingly before the nation in 2001, only to let the bad guy get away at Tora Bora. Once bin Laden was gone, he was gone from our politics, too. Terrorism has disappeared as a campaign issue; the old Bush-Cheney fear card can’t be found in the playbook of the GOP presidential contenders. Ron Paul’s isolationism increasingly seems like his party’s mainstream while the neocon orthodoxy of McCain-Palin looks like the cranky fringe.
The other red-letter days were August 5 and 6, with their twin calamities: the downgrading of America by Standard & Poor’s and the downing of a Chinook helicopter by the Taliban, making for the single most fatal day for Americans in Afghanistan. Among the fallen in that bloodbath were 17 Navy Seals, some of them members of the same revered team that had vanquished bin Laden.* Yet their tragic deaths were runners-up in national attention next to our fiscal woes. America may still ostensibly be a country at war with terrorists, but that war is at most a low-grade fever for the vast American majority with no direct connection to the men and women fighting it. The battle consuming our attention and our energies these days is the losing struggle to stay financially afloat. In time, the connection between the ten-year-old war in Afghanistan and our new civil war over America’s three-year-old economic crisis may well prove the most consequential historical fact of the hideous decade they bracket.
The hallowed burial grounds of 9/11 were supposed to bequeath us a stronger nation, not a busted one. We were supposed to be left with a finer legacy than Gitmo and the Patriot Act. When we woke up on September 12, we imagined a whole host of civic virtues that might rise from the smoldering ruins. The New Normal promised a new national unity and, of all unlikely miracles, bi-partisanship: The still-green president had a near-perfect approval rating for weeks. We would at last cast off our two-decade holiday from history, during which we had mostly ignored a steady barrage of terrorist threats and attacks. We would embrace a selfless wartime patriotism built on the awesome example of those regular Americans who ran to the rescue on that terrifying day of mass death, at the price of their own health and sometimes their lives.
What arrived instead, sadly enough, was another hijacking—of 9/11 by those who exploited it for motives large and petty, both ideological and crassly commercial. The most lethal of these hijackings was the Bush administration’s repurposing of 9/11 for a war against a country that had not attacked us. So devilishly clever was the selling of the Saddam-for-Osama bait-and-switch that almost half the country would come to believe that Iraqis were among the 9/11 hijackers. No less shabby, if far less catastrophic, was the milking of 9/11 for the lesser causes of self-promotion and product placement by those seeking either power or profit. From the Bush-reelection campaign ad with an image of a flag-draped stretcher carrying remains at ground zero to the donning of flag pins by television anchors and pandering politicians, no opportunistic appropriation of 9/11 was too sleazy to be off-limits. T-shirt hawkers and Scientologists rushed downtown to merchandise their wares; NBC re-branded its prime-time entertainment by outfitting its ubiquitous peacock logo with stars and stripes. (G.E., the network’s owner, had defense contracts to tend to.) Nor should we forget the preening architect Daniel Libeskind, who posed for an Audi ad to celebrate winning the contest to design the World Trade Center site (“the commission of the century,” as the copywriter had it).
*This article has been corrected to show that 17 Navy Seals were killed by the downing of the Chinook helicopter in Afghanistan, not 22.