Fifteen years ago yesterday, the United States was attacked in a way it never had been before. It changed our country, perhaps forever.
It’s funny how a major event can crystallize your memory. There have been other occasions of this type: everyone remembers where they were when Pearl Harbor was attacked, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, when Kennedy was shot, when we landed on the Moon. For my generation, 9⁄11 is that event.
I was still living in Indiana back then. I was a few years into college, living with my mother, stepfather, and siblings at the time. It was a sunny morning. Everyone else had already left the house by the time I got up. I needed to take care of a few things before I headed to campus for the day. I had a computer game (Battlecruiser 3000 AD 2.0, if you must know) whose CD jewel case was damaged. I was transferring the inserts into a new case when my mother called. She asked me if I’d turned on the TV today, and I told her I hadn’t. She told me to turn it on. “We’re under siege,” she said in such a way that I was sure she was making it up.
The first World Trade Center tower had already been hit when I turned the TV on. The second would be hit a few minutes later, as I watched. One of the strange things about that day is that we know the timeline so well, it’s possible to know what time it was simply by which part of that day’s unfolding drama was happening at the point you’re attempting to recall. I know that I stayed home until shortly after the towers collapsed. I was up and awake sometime between 8:46am and 9:03am. I must have left between 10 and 10:30. Curiously, I have no real memories of the events themselves–I know I saw them on TV, but I don’t remember much of what I was thinking or feeling in those moments. Maybe that’s for the best.
No one at my university felt like getting any work done that day. Everyone was too distracted, too preoccupied. It was a strange day. It didn’t feel like it was really happening. At the time, I was also receiving email alerts from CNN, which was reporting every unconfirmed incident that was submitted to them. The State Department was on fire, the National Mall had been bombed, there were attacks on other landmarks around the country. It turned out that none of these things had happened, but at the time I felt like the country was disintegrating in the course of a single day.
In the days that followed, I worried most about how we, as a country, would choose to respond. I had not lost anyone in those attacks–I don’t know what that feels like. I can’t imagine. But I have to believe that even if I had, I wouldn’t turn to vengeance. Killing in response to killing doesn’t make the world a better place. It never has, and I don’t see how it ever will. It’s a loss of potential, of basic humanity, every time it happens.
Needless to say, I consider our response to 9⁄11 profoundly disappointing and saddening. We got our revenge, all right, and then some. In terms of our interactions with the rest of the world, things have never really been the same. We began to emphasize hard power–military force–over soft power, in a way we hadn’t in decades. While we went into Afghanistan with the intention of removing the Taliban and setting up a Western-style democracy, that effort has almost completely failed because we made the typical American mistake of thinking we know what’s best for others, rather than listening to the people we supposedly want to help.
Helping people was part of our pretext for the invasion of Iraq, too, but it obviously didn’t work out that way. In truth, it was more of a cynical project to boost the prospects of defense contractors and companies like Halliburton. If it was possible to decapitate oppressive regimes and install American-friendly democracies, while at the same time rebuilding their infrastructure and gaining preferential access to local resources, well, that promised to be an absolute bonanza for the American companies that specialized in such activities. The big-idea think-tankers loved it because it promised the spread of democracy to places that had never experienced it. What could possibly go wrong?
There’s no need to ask that, now. Things in Iraq have gone about as wrong as they could have. Both of our grand experiments in post-9⁄11 nation-building have completely failed. And if one includes Libya, we’ve really hit the trifecta on that one.
What else has the 9⁄11 era given us? There’s NSA spying: everybody “knew” the NSA was collecting all of our digital data, but now we actually _know._ Drone strikes have brought a new form of warfare to bear, a high-tech tool of state terror in which no one is safe, and in which dead innocents serve as a warning to others. We also got comfortable with torture again, and it didn’t seem to matter that it didn’t work–the point is to inflict pain, to make someone, anyone, pay for what was done to us. And they have paid, and paid, and paid. The Obama administration even took the extraordinary step of assassinating American citizens abroad, without trial or any due process at all. This isn’t normal. This isn’t what an accountable democracy does.
Domestically, the so-called War on Terror has only exacerbated our police state tendencies while bringing some new tools to the table. The crescendo of the Drug War had already propped up the mass incarceration machine. Our police forces were happily militarizing in the aftermath of the 1999 WTO protests. The flashpoint of 9⁄11 brought all of this to a head: police weren’t just dealing with drug dealers and violent protests, now they had to worry about fanatical mass-murderers. It doesn’t matter that more al-Qaeda attacks never came. The police got the gear and they got the training and, by God, they’re gonna use it. Fortunately, some of that is being rolled back now, but the fact that it took over a decade is shameful.
Meanwhile, the federal takeover of airport security–supposedly intended to make us safer–has instead made traveling less convenient, and has actively impeded free travel of individuals. Instead of catching terrorists, the TSA is nabbing small-time drug smugglers, deadbeat dads, and hassling people over tubes of toothpaste. New airports must be designed with the elaborate requirements of TSA security theater in mind. Unaccountable no-fly lists mean that some people can’t travel for no reason other than somebody, somewhere marked them as suspicious. Children have wound up on these lists due to mistakes and carelessness, and recently there have been efforts to use these flawed lists as a gun control tool, providing a perfect example of how bad a “compromise” solution can really be.
Since we’re having a hard time catching terrorists, the FBI has made a good business of creating them, finding dupes and unstable individuals they can rope into going along with an FBI-concocted plot, supply them with the materials and knowledge to carry out an attack, then bust them before they can make it happen. This used to be called “entrapment,” but it seems nobody much cares since the FBI is going after disaffected Muslims who may or may not be a danger to anyone if not for the FBI’s antics.
Muslims in the US have really gotten the worst of the post-9⁄11 environment, too. There were racist attacks on Muslims (and anyone who might be mistaken for them, like Sikhs) in the days following 9⁄11, and they never really stopped. Now, we have a Presidential candidate who advocates not letting Muslims into the country, and even registering and detaining those who already live here. What point is there even despairing over such appalling hatred and ignorance? The appropriate response is something worse than despair, something beyond outrage. Emulating the worst monsters of the 20th century is, apparently, a sound strategy for pursuing the Presidency. What does that say about this country and the people who inhabit it?
In the years following 9⁄11, there was frequent worrying over the US becoming a police state. The funny thing about police states is that they aren’t a binary. A country doesn’t exist as a free state one day, and then a police state the next. It’s more of a gradual transition, the proverbial frog in the pot of boiling water. We are less free now than we were 15 years ago, and we have been diminished as a result. We are more afraid, more angry, more hateful. We have created more enemies around the world–people who have good reason to hate us now. We’ve shamelessly spied on our friends as well as our enemies, breaking trust with long-time allies.
Domestically, we are only now beginning to roll back the perverse excesses of the carceral state, now that the Drug War is coming to be viewed as a total failure and all the terrorist attacks we feared coming to our soil never materialized. The two have always been linked as hybrid domestic/international issues: both involve shadowy foreigners inflicting damage and death on decent American citizens, and only harsh measures can put a stop to their nefarious activities. When we can’t use Drug War arguments to justify expanding the police state, we’ll use War on Terror arguments instead, and vice versa. Now that both are collapsing under the weight of their endless fallacies and failures, it’s only a matter of time before we settle on some other threatening spectre.
We don’t need an overt police state because people are already afraid. Frightened people will almost always comply with the wishes of the powerful. And there’s no need to build a massive surveillance infrastructure to keep tabs on everyone, not when people voluntarily build one themselves via their social media accounts and cell phones, all helpfully captured by the NSA. The technology to analyze this data is getting better all the time, as well.
The government doesn’t need to kill people or lock them up to maintain control, either. Anyone whose views are far enough off the beaten path gets relegated to the ashcan of crackpottery with the Alex Joneses of the world. What is feared is not speech, not expression, but activism. Activism–quite literally putting bodies in the streets, on the fields, in the halls of power–is the one thing the government is proactive about stopping. It is why cities worked together to crush and disperse the Occupy movement, why Black Lives Matter rallies are frequently characterized as “riots” and violently broken up by police, and why the standard police practice for protesters is to arrest them, to break up the protests and demonstrations. Words on a screen or on the airwaves are not cause for concern. People physically occupying spaces is another matter entirely.
If nothing else, 9⁄11 taught us to be afraid again–to see enemies everywhere, both foreign and domestic. As a tool of terrorism, it was extremely effective. It did exactly the job it was supposed to do. It has made us less democratic, less free. Hundreds of thousands of people have died in its wake. We learned all the wrong lessons, and are now stuck with a government that casually uses “national security” as an argument against transparency and accountability. No matter who is elected in November, the legacy of 9⁄11 ensures that the rights of more Americans will be trampled on, and thousands more people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Syria, and elsewhere will die from weapons built by us, wielded by us, or both.
One of the fundamental questions of politics is whether people vote their hopes or their fears. 9⁄11 proved that, no matter what hopes people may have, fear is the more powerful motivator–and fear combined with anger makes for a world-threatening menace.