I spent much of Saturday reading or watching eyewitness accounts or reflections on the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
I was living in the UK, so the first half of my day passed routinely as I worked on my dissertation at home. Nothing unusual was on the BBC newscast I watched over my lunch break. The first plane struck the World Trade Center a little before 2:00 pm. I got a call soon after urging me to turn on the television and watched the horror unfold for the rest of the day and evening.
The attacks were a top news story in the UK for a long time. Most people don’t know 9/11 was the deadliest terrorist incident in British history. At least 67 UK citizens lost their lives, mostly in the World Trade Center or on the airplanes. No Irish Republican Army bombing had ever claimed nearly as many victims. For weeks afterward, I remember random strangers in London offering their condolences for what happened to my country as soon as they heard my American accent.
Retired Admiral Michail Franken recalls a similar experience. At the time, he was first commanding officer of the U.S. Navy Arleigh Burke destroyer, USS WINSTON S CHURCHILL, on a training mission in the English Channel. “We had over thirty crewmembers who had family members working either in the World Trade Center or in the vicinity of those buildings. Many of the crew knew people working in the Pentagon’s Navy Command Center, as well.” A few days later,
The German warship, FGS LUTJENS, which was undergoing the same type of predeployment training meted by the Royal Navy as the CHURCHILL, radioed a request to come alongside. My bridge team asked permission to say yes, not an automatic yes because the threat condition warranted that all ships were to keep their distance. I said absolutely.
The sight was unforgettable. Alongside, the LUTJENS flew a banner that said, “We stand by you.” Their crew lined the rail, adorned in dress uniforms. The Stars and Stripes flew at half-mast. Their captain saluted and I rendered a response. A dry eye was nowhere in sight.
As far as I could tell from abroad, Americans were united in feelings of grief and determination to recover. There is still a strong sense of unanimity in remembering the victims of the attack and honoring the first responders. But for many Americans, 9/11 made them targets in their own country.
Rekha Basu writes in her latest Des Moines Register column about the explosion of bigotry toward religious and ethnic minorities, especially Muslims and anyone mistaken for Muslims. Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh-American business owner in Arizona, was the first to be murdered (on September 15, 2001) by someone seeking vengeance for the attacks. Thousands of other people of color saw their lives change for the worse. A U.S. citizen from Egypt, who happened to be a Coptic Christian, lost clients and later his job because some people thought he was a terrorist. He eventually changed his family’s surname so his children would not be perceived as Arabs.
Garrett M. Graff, the author of an oral history of 9/11 and a book about the FBI’s counterterrorism efforts, wrote this week in The Atlantic that “The United States—as both a government and a nation—got nearly everything about our response wrong, on the big issues and the little ones.”
Even disproved plots added to the impression that the U.S. was under constant attack by a shadowy, relentless, and widespread enemy. Rather than recognizing that an extremist group with an identifiable membership and distinctive ideology had exploited fixable flaws in the American security system to carry out the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration launched the nation on a vague and ultimately catastrophic quest to rid the world of “terror” and “evil.” […]
Homeland Security has helped set up scores of so-called state fusion centers, little-scrutinized entities that ostensibly promote intelligence sharing among multiple levels of government but, in practice, have targeted people, such as members of antiwar groups, who do not remotely qualify as terrorists. The department has also accelerated the militarizing of local and state police departments, which recast themselves as potential front-line responders to terror attacks on the American homeland. […]
Even as the War on Terror rapidly curtailed the ability of any Islamic extremist group to carry out a major, spectacular attack like 9/11, the mentality it created poisoned America and its politics. Hate crimes against Muslims jumped—as did hate crimes against Sikhs, from people too lazy or filled with animosity to bother to understand the difference. In the years ahead, Islamophobic trainings would proliferate inside the FBI and the military, at least until they were exposed in the press. In 2008, GOP speakers insinuated falsely that Barack Obama was a closet Muslim—as if that mere faith, practiced by a billion people around the planet, should be disqualifying for a candidate.
That demonization of Muslims helped give rise to the “birtherism” that Donald Trump embraced to wend his way into the hearts and minds of the Republican Party base, win the GOP’s presidential nomination, and—using a platform that stoked fears of immigrants, ISIS, and terrorists—win the White House.
While many politicians extolled the bravery of New Yorkers in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, it didn’t take long for conservatives to resume bashing so-called “coastal elites” as less than real Americans. Andrew Sullivan was among the first, writing less than a week after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, “The middle part of the country–the great red zone that voted for Bush–is clearly ready for war. The decadent left in its enclaves on the coasts is not dead–and may well mount a fifth column.”
Talking Points Memo founder Josh Marshall commented today,
In the years that followed, as history unfolded, it was hard to hear the words “9/11” without knowing that in most cases it was an incantation to be on guard, to make war in some distant part of the globe, as a kind of bloody shirt to throw down in the face of anyone wanting to peel back the threads of fear, xenophobia and militarism that became so commonplace in the years that followed. […]
[L]et’s be honest: at a certain point the invocation became something like hearing Lee Greenwood belt out his song at yet another right wing rally, a gauntlet thrown down in the face of anyone trying to rethink or unwind so much of the trajectory of the last twenty years. It was definitely used that way. Again and again and again. “Remember 9/11” for things that actually weren’t connected to 9/11.
U.S. Senator Joni Ernst tried to weaponize this tragedy just yesterday, telling a Fox News interviewer that President Joe Biden’s new policy to require COVID-19 vaccines in many workplaces “is a diversion away from 9/11, away from the twentieth anniversary, and away from the debacle that was his Afghanistan withdrawal.”
I’ve never felt more hopeless about Americans uniting behind any common purpose.
Top photograph by Keith Burke of 9/11 memorial skyline available via Shutterstock.