Walking to my morning class, I overheard a student tell another something about a plane crash in New York. That’s all I remember from the day. I’m sure I got home and watched it all unfold on television, but I don’t really remember any of that. Only that first bit stuck with me.
There were daily reports about the search and rescue at Ground Zero. There were first details about the where why how the hell this happened. President Bush vowing revenge, international well-wishing.
I remember glimpses of the next several years, the wars erupting. The shifting security theater of airports. I remember going downtown to a protest against the war in Iraq, scribbling a sign in a notebook that read, “Chew before you swallow. Think before you follow.”
It all felt very strange. Every moment of it, of these 20 years.
America, 20 years after the 2001 attacks, still feels just as lost. Hell, we were lost before that. Probably we always were. Not just America, but humanity. If something good happens, we assume we deserve it and that things are stable. If something bad happens, we assume we deserve it and that things are crashing.
Sure, we might protest sometimes. Righteous indignation. But only so much. Things go back to the middle, the blur. Mostly we focus on the economy, on jobs, on consuming. That was the big call in late 2001: go shopping. Keep the economy running. Healing? Reflection? Not until they can be monetized, if ever.
Politically, those years taught a pretty good lesson: Republicans as a party can’t care. They aren’t able to care. Bush ran on compassionate conservativism. But he didn’t deliver. He tried at some level on some policies, but his party couldn’t get there. They still can’t. Those in the party that try are fooling themselves that it can happen. It’s sadly a lesson we’re still being taught, as roughly one in ten COVID-19 deaths have happened since 1 May, a period when free vaccines have been broadly available.
Democrats, for all their faults, have a mixed record. They often care, but for a variety of reasons can’t get 100%, can’t drag the Republicans along when it’s needed most. The party of Lincoln has calcified into a millstone.
I realize that doesn’t seem to have a lot to do with the topic—the 2001 attacks. I’m not sure much does or doesn’t. I know the media has been building up for the 20th anniversary, and I still don’t really get anything but a strange vibe. The attacks were a very shitty day, but the repercussions, the reaction more than the day itself, still throb in the soul of the country in a very real way. I don’t think it’s loss of innocence. It feels more like a permanent excuse.
All the tragedies big and small, the politicians come out and do their expected rituals. And I don’t mean to belittle them—rituals bring some amount of comfort. But all the flag pins, the gestures in the aftermath, they became more important than actually righting the ship. It started to feel like all the pols and corps were like the mafia don sending a sliced meat platter, but still sending a goon to collect the protection money. That the schmucks never cared enough to stand up to pharma companies or banks or telecoms or any major business.
It feels more like if a married person has an affair, cheats. And the spouse finds out, but they stay together. But every argument, every difference, there’s that weight of the excuse, the old scar to be shown: “I took a bullet for you once, now you have to follow me around until you save my life.” That’s what 11 September feels like on some level. Like America has held it over its own head and said, “We can’t commit to a new paradigm, a renewal, a sanity.”
I still hope one day we can commit to those things. They’d be a hell of a lot more of a fitting legacy to those who died that day, that week, in the months and years since.