In the early morning of September 11, 2001, a small group of lawyers, engineers, contractors, developers, and architects gathered for a communications seminar on crisis management at the Seaport Hotel in downtown Boston. Their objective was to consider how best to react to a simulated collapse of a large building. My husband, a lawyer, was a participant. Leaving the session just after 9 a.m., he was drawn to a crowd gathering around the hotel bar television screen, where the video was coming in about the first plane hitting the North Tower of World Trade Center. The second tower was hit, and then they both collapsed. From hypothetical to unspeakable reality in the flash of a crash. And life was changed forever.
I was at home, preparing for our flight out of Logan Airport later that day on American Airlines, bound for a wedding in Paris. The groom’s brother was coming out of a subway station in lower Manhattan as the planes struck. He never made it to his brother’s wedding, which had only three on the groom’s side and 300 French guests of the bride’s family.
A month after the tragedy, the acrid smoke still hung in the air many blocks from the gaping wound that had been the Twin Towers. By the site itself, onlookers clung to each other in sadness. I can still evoke the smell, the poignancy of the pictures posted on nearby bulletin boards and light posts of loved ones never to be seen again, the palpable sadness in the fire station on 8th Avenue, the bonds of grief shared by strangers on the no-longer-boisterous streets.
Twenty years later is again a time for deep reflection and sorrow. We mourn not just the lives lost, the sense of security eviscerated, the new intensity of perceived vulnerability. We also grieve the loss of national unity in the days and months immediately following the tragedy – the brief coming together of rich and poor, black and white, red and blue, Republicans and Democrats, strangers and friends. Many – perhaps most – of us, lament the divisiveness, hyper-partisanship and entrenched hatreds of today, infecting the body politic and our civic environment.
The insurrection of January 6th of this year was a dramatic reminder of how severely our country is riven by enmity, fueled by cascading misinformation, even regarding the legitimacy of last November’s election. (PBS’s “Frontline” this week did a fine job linking 9/11 and 1/6.) The unbridled animosity endures. Our leaders are largely stuck in gridlock – about vaccination and masks, the urgency of addressing climate change and more. If Osama bin Laden’s goal was to inflict on us “death by a thousand cuts,” his strategy has succeeded beyond his expectations. As he said in multiple interviews, his goal was to get Americans to overact to provocations, and, in doing so, harm this nation’s economy and standing in the world.
And so we did, using any means necessary (the trumped up war in Iraq, the Patriot Act, Gitmo, Abu Ghraib) and, in the process, compromising our own values. There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But, when the government fed the media big lies, the media swallowed them and printed them as truths. Trust in big institutions, including mainstream media, quite logically dissipated. Without trust, cynicism and conspiracy theories offering simplistic answers to complex issues flourished.
In Afghanistan, Barack Obama got Bin Laden but followed George Bush deeper into the Vietnam-like quagmire, expanding the unwinnable war with a surge in troops. Donald Trump, ineffectively negotiating to end the war, freed in advance 5000 terrorist prisoners, loosing upon the Biden-led evacuation fresh energy for savage attacks. Biden, who as Vice President had opposed Obama’s surge in 2009, was correct on strategy but blundered on executing tactics. Extricating ourselves would always have been messy, but it could have been done far better.
The promise of a return to tranquility and competence under the Biden Administration is struggling to find fulfillment. Despite how seriously Biden had taken the COVID threat to public health, in contrast to his predecessor’s dismissiveness, from the start we haven’t gotten this virus and its variants under control, and official messaging about mask wearing, boosters and vaccine availability has been conflicted at best.
With the help of expanded social media, which Bin Laden could scarcely have dreamed of, we’ve now, 20 years after 9/11, turned on each other with a vengeance., zealously committed to tribal politics and policies even when knowing they were wrong. This is all very discouraging.
Time is of the essence in dealing with issues like infrastructure, repairing the social safety net, fighting climate change and restoring voting protections. In just a few months, the mid-term Congressional campaigns will begin in earnest. The window of opportunity is narrowing. At stake are the excruciatingly thin majorities in the House and Senate. Those interested in sustaining whatever momentum the imperfect Biden Administration has should surely engage in supporting candidates – even in states other than one’s own – to make sure that marginal districts stayed tipped in the direction of enlightenment and hope. Not to do so could make matters much worse. Twenty years post 9/11, I don’t like the feeling that somewhere Osama bin Laden is laughing.
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