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.
National unity proved to be short-lived. An extreme, jingoistic patriotism soon gripped the land, accompanied by a rigid code of political correctness. You were either with the White House or you were with the terrorists. If you didn’t subscribe to what Joan Didion called the “fixed ideas” of 9/11, then it could be said “the terrorists have won.” ABC News found its patriotism questioned when it dared ban flag pins for its on-air journalists; the journalist William Langewiesche was heckled at readings for his book American Ground, a scrupulous firsthand account of the marathon ground-zero cleanup in which not every participant emerged a saint. Each time Hollywood attempted earnest (if less than brilliant) dramatizations like Flight 93 and World Trade Center, it would cue a debate about whether it was “too soon” to go there. The most famous journalistic photo of 9/11, Richard Drew’s “The Falling Man,” was banished from view following its morning-after appearance in the Times.
The sanitizing of 9/11 and the falsification of its genesis to jump-start a second war ended up muddying and corrupting the memory of the event rather than giving hawks and the right’s p.c.-police the permanent “war on terror” they craved. The attack’s meaning was eviscerated by its linkage to the endless debacle in Iraq. The images of the day were so bowdlerized and so shrouded in euphemistic pieties that the viciousness of the slaughter was gradually muted. When the World Trade Center–site developer Larry Silverstein said this July that “ten years from today, I suspect very few people will remember it as ground zero,” he was speaking the truth. To some degree, that’s already the case. It’s not just color-coded terror alerts, Freedom fries, and Rudy Giuliani’s once-unimpeachable political standing that are gone with the wind. It shows just how much 9/11 has been downsized in the American cosmography over a decade that when a conservative Republican senator, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, tried to derail a bill aiding those with 9/11-related illnesses last year, most of his own political cohort gave silent assent. The most vocal champions of the surviving 9/11 victims and their families were New York officials and celebrities like Jon Stewart, most of them liberal Democrats. The righteous anger of the right had moved on to the cause of taking down a president with the middle name Hussein.
In retrospect, the most consequential event of the past ten years may not have been 9/11 or the Iraq War but the looting of the American economy by those in power in Washington and on Wall Street. This was happening in plain sight—or so we can now see from a distance. At the time, we were so caught up in Al Qaeda’s external threat to America that we didn’t pay proper attention to the more prosaic threats within.
In such an alternative telling of the decade’s history, the key move Bush made after 9/11 had nothing to do with military strategy or national-security policy. It was instead his considered decision to rule out shared sacrifice as a governing principle for the fight ahead. Sacrifice was high among the unifying ideals that many Americans hoped would emerge from the rubble of ground zero, where so many Good Samaritans had practiced it. But the president scuttled the notion on the first weekend after the attack, telling Americans that it was his “hope” that “they make no sacrifice whatsoever” beyond, perhaps, tolerating enhanced airline security. Few leaders in either party contradicted him. Bush would soon implore us to “get down to Disney World in Florida” and would even lend his image to a travel-industry ad promoting tourism. Our marching orders were to go shopping.
From then on, it was a given that any human losses at wartime would be borne by a largely out-of-sight, out-of-mind, underpaid volunteer army and that the expense would be run up on a magic credit card. Even as the rising insurgency in Iraq began to stress American resources to the max in 2003, Bush doubled down on new tax cuts and pushed through a wildly extravagant new Medicare entitlement for prescription drugs to shore up his reelection prospects with elderly voters. David Walker, then the comptroller general, called it “the most reckless fiscal year in the history of the republic.” But Americans took the money and ran, and the same partisan voices now screaming about deficits in Washington remained mum as the cascade of red ink soared into the multitrillions.
By portraying Afghanistan and Iraq as utterly cost-free to a credulous public, the Bush administration injected the cancer into the American body politic that threatens it today: If we don’t need new taxes to fight two wars, why do we need them for anything? But that’s only half the story in this alternative chronicle of the decade’s history. Even as the middle class was promised a free ride, those at the top were awarded a free pass—not just with historically low tax rates that compounded America’s rampant economic inequality but with lax supervision of their own fiscal misbehavior.
It was only a month after 9/11 that the Enron scandal erupted, kicking off a larger narrative that would persist for the rest of the decade. The Houston energy company was a corporate Ponzi scheme that anticipated the antics at financial institutions, mortgage mills, and credit-rating agencies during the subprime scam. Enron had also been the biggest patron of Bush’s political career, and so the president dutifully promised a crackdown, with a new “financial crimes SWAT team” and “tough new criminal penalties for corporate fraud.” But this propaganda campaign was no more reality-based than the one that would promote Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. Once the Enron collapse became old news, federal regulatory agencies and law enforcement were encouraged to go fishing as the housing bubble inflated and banks manufactured toxic paper that would send America and the world into a ruinous dive rivaling bin Laden’s cruelest fantasies.
It is that America—the country where rampaging greed usurped the common good in wartime, the country that crashed just as Bush fled the White House—that we live in today. It has little or no resemblance to the generous and heroic America we glimpsed on 9/11 and the days that followed. Our economy and our politics are broken. We remain in hock to jihadist oil producers as well as to China. Our longest war stretches into an infinite horizon. After watching huge expenditures of American blood and treasure install an Iran-allied “democracy” in a still-fratricidal Iraq, Americans have understandably resumed their holiday from history where it left off, turning their backs on the Arab Spring.
Thanks to the killing of the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks and the scattering of Al Qaeda, at least no one can say, ten years later, that the terrorists won. But if there’s anything certain about the new decade ahead, it’s that sooner or later we will have to address the question of exactly who did.