9/11: 20 years later

America’s Greatest Existential Threat Wasn’t Terrorism

Maurizio Cattelan, Blind (2021). Photo: Emanuele Cremaschi/Getty Images

If you want to contemplate the legacy of 9/11 20 years later, the logical place to begin might be the 9/11 Memorial & Museum. It bills itself as “the country’s principal institution concerned with exploring 9/11, documenting its impact, and examining its continuing significance.” And so it is, though not necessarily in the way its proponents had imagined.

Battered by COVID, whose New York City body count is thus far well over ten times that at ground zero, the museum was staring down a $45 million deficit and laid off nearly 60 percent of its staff during its pandemic closure. Its aspirations for special 20th-anniversary events have been downsized or scuttled. The guest list for the annual memorial ceremony is again limited to families of the dead, spurning the firefighters, police, and medics whose lives were on the line that day. A planned traveling exhibition to revive 9/11 memories nationwide has been replaced by what the New York Times describes as “downloadable posters created in partnership with the American Library Association.”

Even at half-mast, the 9/11 Memorial & Museum is driven by the ideological divides and culture wars endemic to almost every other civic institution in Donald Trump’s wake. There are disputes over its presentation of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and its steerage-class treatment of rescue workers. There are battles over the museum’s efforts to restrict the usage of its vast archive of recordings as well as its ban on protesters and demonstrations. There is lingering dissent to the installation of a gift shop on the site of mass carnage.

The museum receives little public funding, with 95 percent of its budget coming from earned revenue, mainly ticket sales. (Its Payback Protection Program loan of $4.6 million was less than half the amount bestowed on the parent company of Potbelly Sandwich Shops.) The museum’s philanthropic portal is named the Never Forget Fund — “Never forget” having been the nation’s Holocaust-resonant mantra in the aftermath of the attacks. There is no guarantee, however, that an enterprise reliant on the largesse of the fickle American public won’t disappear down a memory hole. The museum could yet go the way of the Automat. The two pools that compose the elegant memorial, should they fall short of attaining the indelibility of Maya Lin’s Vietnam memorial in Washington, could fade into a Tripadvisor also-ran. Nor is permanence guaranteed for the hulking skyscraper that opened down the block in 2014 as a complementary post-9/11 assertion of anti-terrorist defiance. (If we don’t rebuild, the terrorists will have won, the adage had it back then.) Originally merchandised as the Freedom Tower, it retreated to the name One World Trade Center when potential occupants balked that “Freedom” might make them a bull’s-eye for terrorists. The building’s eventual anchor tenant, the straitened magazine publisher Condé Nast, briefly withheld rent and threatened to flee to New Jersey this year.

Never forget. What, aside from the memory of the dead and the heroism of those who tried to come to their rescue, are we supposed to remember about 9/11? There’s the war in Afghanistan, of course. The smell of the incinerated flesh downtown was still wafting across the city when George W. Bush promulgated what he called “Operation Enduring Freedom” for the righteous goals of bringing Osama bin Laden to justice “dead or alive” and overthrowing the grotesque Taliban regime that had sheltered him. CNN branded it “America’s New War,” and polling showed that at least 80 percent of Americans supported it. Victory seemed swift by one measure: The Taliban was toppled by Thanksgiving. But bin Laden escaped from Tora Bora the following month when Bush’s Pentagon turned its attention to a pending war of choice in Iraq and bungled its central 9/11 mission of apprehending the mastermind of the attacks. It was “one of the most spectacular misjudgments in U.S. military history,” in the words of the bin Laden biographer Peter Bergen.

Twenty years later, “America’s New War” has long since become America’s longest war. As President Biden pulled the plug — bizarrely choosing 9/11/21 as the initial deadline for withdrawal — some two-thirds of Americans thought it had not been worth fighting. They had never been onboard for Bush’s pivot from a war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban to a naïve and extravagant colonialist exercise in nation building. And so now we’re back where we came in. Once heralded as the Day that Changed Everything in America, 9/11 proved to be Groundhog Day as far as the war was concerned. After some 2,500 American casualties, at least 240,000 Afghan deaths, and 2 trillion taxpayers’ dollars, the Taliban is back in power just in time for our 20th-anniversary observances. This turn of events may be the most damning refutation yet of the short-lived 9/11 meme that “irony is dead.” Or the second-most damning: Many of the loudest voices in the media and in Washington decrying our inept and catastrophic exit — whether liberal or conservative, Democrat, Republican, or Never-Trump Republican — are the same voices that helped grease the skids for disaster in Afghanistan by promoting a second new war in Iraq on manufactured intelligence in the months after 9/11. They have major-media platforms but no shame or accountability. Those of them still in today’s GOP should in particular spare us the crocodile tears they are shedding for Afghan women and girls: There’s not a chance in hell that evacuated Muslim families will be welcome in MAGA’s backyards.

Like the war in Afghanistan, most other 9/11 certitudes have blown up over the ensuing decades. When Rudy Giuliani was front and center, during the long hours when Bush went AWOL after the attacks, he seized the leadership vacuum much as Andrew Cuomo would when Trump went AWOL on COVID. “America’s Mayor,” as a hagiographic media crowned Rudy, was Time’s 2001 Person of the Year, beating out both Bush and bin Laden. How that guy devolved into a zealot spewing anti-democratic garbage in front of Four Seasons Total Landscaping in an industrial patch of northeastern Philadelphia is at once a historical parable for our time and a psychiatric case history for the ages. We also failed to imagine that Bush, the fleetingly beloved commander-in-chief of post-9/11, let alone his omnipotent vice-president’s political heir, Liz Cheney, would one day be persona non grata in their own party. Or that climate change would be a greater existential threat to America than radical-Islamist terrorism. Or that Congress, whose members once raced to the smoldering ground zero for photo ops, would turn its back on extending benefits for 9/11 victims until the enraged testimony of a tearful Jon Stewart embarrassed them into doing so.

The overarching and humbling truth we must take away from 9/11 is how wrong most of us were at the time, myself certainly included, about what that dark day meant and where it would lead. The widespread patriotic conviction that the country had come together in unity and solidarity with a wounded New York melted away before the missing-persons flyers did in lower Manhattan. The Bush administration’s notion that we could “win” the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq without sacrifice, with civilians collecting tax cuts while volunteer soldiers risked their lives on whack-a-mole missions, was the kind of magical thinking that set the stage for the reckless financial bubbles that brought on the Great Recession and the populist rage that has inflamed the nation ever since.

We should also acknowledge that a pervasive question after 9/11 — “Why do they hate us?” — was the wrong question. Providing answers to it proved a full-employment program for pundits, but the question Americans should have been addressing instead was “Why do we hate each other?” That hate wasn’t just manifest in the virulent Islamophobia that tarred American Muslims with Al Qaeda after 9/11. Culture wars were rampant. “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists,” Bush declared. Those were fighting words at home as well as abroad. Bill Maher was dropped by ABC after wisecracking that hijackers were not necessarily cowards. The writer Andrew Sullivan targeted the “decadent left” in “enclaves on the coasts” as potential traitors as the country careered into war. The NBC peacock logo was recast in stars and stripes lest anyone doubt that it was a hawk. GOP congressmen, precursors of today’s Freedom Caucus, demanded that the House cafeterias rename French fries “freedom fries” after France refused to sign on to the invasion of Iraq.

In his new book, Reign of Terror, the journalist Spencer Ackerman draws a direct line from the jingoism, bigotry, and xenophobia that erupted after the 9/11 attacks to Trump’s cynical political choice to feed a “white nativist appetite for a narrative of besiegement, replacement, abandonment, and betrayal.” This hideous strain of 9/11 fallout spread at an accelerated pace once Barack Hussein Obama could be conflated with terrorists by the opposition party — not just on the fringes but from the national platform awarded to its vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin. Trump knew what he was doing when he peddled a demonstrably fictional sighting of Muslim Americans in New Jersey cheering the fall of the Twin Towers — even as he tastelessly bragged, with equal falsity, that he had “spent a lot of time” with first responders at ground zero and that his building at 40 Wall Street was by default New York’s tallest thanks to the towers going down.

In the aftermath of our one term (so far) of Trump, it’s hard not to be gripped by what seems in retrospect our most self-destructive blind spot of 20 years ago. Much as we ignored the blinking red lights of an imminent Al Qaeda attack before 9/11, so we refused to recognize that domestic terrorism remained a looming threat the morning after. Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City had taken place only six years earlier. A considerable network of highly armed fanatics — the neo-Nazis, conspiracy theorists, and white supremacists who were his fellow travelers — was waiting in the wings as Al Qaeda commanded center stage. Starting with his post-inauguration Muslim ban, Trump gave these terrorists the high sign to come out of hiding once he was in the White House. But Charlottesville notwithstanding, it wasn’t until January 6, 2021, that many Americans paid serious attention. There was no getting around the fact that the MAGA insurrectionists came closer than the thwarted terrorists on United Flight 93 to realizing Al Qaeda’s apparent 9/11 goal of maiming either the U.S. Capitol or the White House.

If the sentimental bromides Americans told each other in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 were true, we would Never Forget what happened on 1/6. But if we’ve learned anything over these 20 years, it’s that we Always Forget and we don’t have a clue about what terror will strike our country next.

More on 9/11: 20 years later

See All
America’s Greatest Existential Threat Wasn’t Terrorism