In orchestrating the attacks on September 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden had wanted to end the global reign of the decadent West, inflict a staggering blow to American democracy, and entangle every Muslim in the conflict. Bin Laden may be dead, but it is hard not to conclude that he got what he wanted.
I grew up in the shadow of 9/11, 11 years old when the planes hit the Towers. The experience was visceral, future-shattering — the loss of my innocence. I remember hearing about the attacks at school from a boy who used the word “terrorists.” When I got home, my parents had grim looks on their faces, as if they knew what the fire and rubble in New York and Washington portended. We sat in wordless terror as infernal images flickered on the television screen.
Everything changed from that moment. It was as though an entire world had ended on that day, along with the hopes for a more peaceful, humane, enlightened century. America, and soon the entire West, were at war. “We have nearly all had occasion to wonder,” declared the New York Times editorial board on September 12, 2001, “how civilians who suddenly found their country at war and themselves under attack managed to frame some memory of life as it once was. Now we know.”
When I went back to school, I couldn’t articulate my fears or voice my questions. I learned that it was best to keep silent. After all, I was a Muslim, bin Laden was a Muslim, and bin Laden said that he was waging jihad to kill the infidels and end the American empire. The stomach-curdling message I saw in the eyes of those around me was Your people are responsible for this.
The terms of the debate were set by the Islamic extremists on one side, and Western neoconservatives on the other. People like me found ourselves caught in the middle. Through my entire adolescence and young adulthood, I was forced to distinguish myself from the terrorists, to prove I was one of the “good ones.” George W. Bush had called it a “crusade” against an elusive foe who might be your neighbor. He said that you were either with us or with the terrorists, implying that anyone who did not support the United States was supporting Al Qaeda. Those were the parameters of the post-9/11 era.
Three wars were launched in the aftermath of 9/11, two officially: the war in Afghanistan, in retaliation for the 9/11 attacks, which later became a nation-building effort to replace the Taliban; the war in Iraq, based on the big lie that Saddam Hussein was tied to Al Qaeda, which also became a nation-building effort; and the informal, clandestine war of illegal surveillance, enhanced interrogation, indefinite detention, and extraordinary rendition — the war that would be led by America against itself. A war on the very ideals that bin Laden had promised to end.
The first victims of 9/11 were the innocent people in New York and Washington and that lonely field in Pennsylvania. But violence rippled into more violence, hatred morphed into more hatred, the force from the initial impact of the planes reverberating across the years. The West bombed Iraq and Afghanistan (and Pakistan), and the terrorists bombed back. We became inured to seemingly endless feedback loops of violence, no longer surprised when another suicide bombing murdered scores of innocents — and brown people, it must be acknowledged, were the disproportionate victims of these attacks.
Those years after 9/11, my teenage years, were a timeline of death and destruction, the culprits always resembling me in some form. Suicide bombings in London. Explosion on a Madrid train. Suicide bombing in Baghdad, in Amman, in Barcelona. Massacres in Peshawar, Mumbai, Paris. Each time there was an outburst of violence in the news, my heart would sink at the prospect of the perpetrator being yet another Muslim. Cue another round of bombs and crackdowns and condemnations in the press.
The war on terror launched a thousand attempts to explain the Muslim mind. Often, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and later ISIS were seen to be speaking for “true Islam.” This was the claim the extremists themselves made, amplified by the right-wing media in the West, which viewed all Muslims as one step away from becoming suicide bombers. It forced people like me into a bind. If you were brown and grew up after the 9/11 attacks, your very existence was predicated on a presumption of guilt. There was also the presumption of otherness, encoded in the language that politicians used to justify the violence: “we” were bombing “them” over there so that “we” didn’t have to fight “them” over here.
The Western intellectuals who wrote book after book about the threat from Islam were working within a ripe tradition. Ten years before 9/11, the Princeton historian Bernard Lewis had coined an important phrase in The Atlantic to describe the coming conflict. “This is no less than a clash of civilizations,” Lewis wrote, “the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both.” By defining the battle in such grandiose terms, we accepted the same narrative as the jihadis — that this was a war over civilization, for the very soul of humanity. The war on terror, we were told, wasn’t a counterterrorism operation or a law-enforcement matter, but a battle of good versus evil.
Twenty years later, it feels like evil won. Osama bin Laden had laid a trap, even if that wasn’t his original intention. Only by getting the West drawn into endless wars abroad, and into plots against enemies at home, could he bankrupt the American behemoth. In the decade since his death, the results have been plain to see: conflict and instability across the greater Middle East; more refugee flows into the West, combined with anti-immigrant violence in response; the rise in America of terrorist attacks carried out by white extremists, goaded on by an authoritarian leader who made a name for himself demonizing Muslims. The surveillance state now has extensive access to every facet of our lives. Trust in political institutions is decaying. Democracy itself is in peril.
In many ways, Donald Trump was the singular creature of the forever wars, elevated to national office in a country that had become exhausted and angry at outsiders. All of Trump’s signature policies — from banning Muslims to building the Wall — found a receptive audience in an America that saw its way of life threatened by foreign enemies. It was only a matter of time before contempt for the Other turned inward.
Here lay the great tragedy of the 9/11 era: that something much worse than terror wounded our society over the last two decades. An essential faith in the future was lost. Perhaps this is true for the end of all empires, and despair always precedes the fall. But if younger generations are to emerge from the darkness of the 9/11 era — and it remains my naïve hope that they will — we must first acknowledge the damage we wrought on ourselves. That was the deepest cut of all.
More on 9/11: 20 years later
- Where the Meaning of Flight 93 Can Never End
- The Great Maritime Rescue of Lower Manhattan on 9/11
- The Woman in White