“The United States is a far less confident and optimistic nation now than it was in September 2001,” historian Michael J. Allen said.
Twenty years later, Sally Regenhard still hasn’t buried her lost New York City firefighter son, Christian.
Twenty years later, John Feal, a construction worker turned activist, still mourns the loss of that fleeting moment of national unity that arose after the twin towers of the World Trade Center fell.
Twenty years later, Army veteran Kiyoshi Mino fears the Afghans he served with, after the United States invaded the country because its Taliban government was sheltering 9/11 architect Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda members, will fall into Taliban hands and wonders if all that sacrifice was worth it.
And 20 years later, the ranks of the ground zero first responders who risked their lives and health to rescue those trapped in the ruins of the towers, and later retrieve the bodies of those who died there, grow smaller every year.
It was a blue-sky late summer morning when Al Qaeda terrorists in hijacked planes brought down the World Trade Center, attacked the Pentagon, crashed a plane into a field in Pennsylvania, killed more than 3,000 people, and made a mockery of America’s belief in its invincibility. And two decades later, the nation — still in the grips of the deadly Covid-19 pandemic and stunned by the chaotic end of the Afghanistan War — continues to grapple with the aftermath of that day.
“What do you write about 9/11 20 years later?” asked Feal, a demolition supervisor who lost part of a foot while toiling at ground zero and later teamed up with the comedian Jon Stewart to fight for compensation for the thousands of police officers, firefighters and others who were sickened from working on the site.
“Write that we’re deteriorating, write that more and more people who were down there are sick and dying, write that a delayed bomb filled with hate has exploded and it’s ruining our country,” he said. “All the unity on that day, after all that amazing unity on Sept. 12, 2001, when we were all Americans united together, all that unity is gone.”
Cracks in unity
Michael J. Allen, a professor of American history at Northwestern University, agreed that America is not the country it was when the twin towers fell.
“The United States is a far less confident and optimistic nation now than it was in September 2001, which marked the end of a decade of technology-fueled economic growth, foreign policy dominance and presidential centrism,” he said. “But it is also a more diverse nation with a more clear-eyed sense of the serious challenges Americans face and a more realistic sense of the dangers and limits of American power.”
How did we fall apart after the most shocking attack on the U.S. since Pearl Harbor? The first cracks in the post 9/11 unity came when the administration of then-President George W. Bush used the terrorist attacks as an excuse to attack Iraq, which had no role in them, historians said.
At the same time, millions of Muslim Americans found themselves branded terrorists by bigots and were forced to defend their religion because of bin Laden’s fanaticism.
“The Bush administration’s failed foreign policy response to the 9/11 attacks discredited the existing leadership of the Republican Party and leading Democrats like Hillary Clinton” who supported the Iraq War, Allen said.
That, he said, helped pave the way for the election of President Barack Obama, one of the few politicians who publicly opposed the Iraq War, and allowed “a new political class to emerge” before the subsequent election of his successor, Donald Trump.
“But that political class is more confrontational and enjoys less trust in a nation that has grown more divided,” Allen said. “The net effect is to leave Americans less capable of reaching consensus on any problem we face — from Covid to climate change to counterterrorism to policing — and thus unable to forge public policy responses.”
The internet also figures into the division.
“Safe to say, if what happened on Sept. 11, 2001, happened today, the response would have been vastly different,” said Syracuse University professor Robert Thompson, an expert on popular culture. “The major variable is social media and the explosion of the digital environment.”
There were conspiracy theorists who floated bogus notions that Jews were warned not to show up for work at the twin towers that day and that the attacks were an inside job or even faked, he said.
But while those notions continue to persist on the web, they did not get the sudden traction in 2001 that, for example, some of the false Covid claims that Trump promoted on Twitter did last year.
Instead, a “we’re all in this together” narrative took hold in the media in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks and remained there until the Bush administration began pushing to invade Iraq, which happened in March 2003.
“We had Jay Leno vowing not to make fun of the way President Bush mispronounces words,” Thompson said. “There is no way that warm, unified feeling would happen today.”
The endless war is over
When bin Laden masterminded the 9/11 attacks, he did so from a hideout in Afghanistan, which was then being governed by the Taliban, homegrown practitioners of an extreme version of Islam bent on returning the country to some of the practices of the Middle Ages.
The invasion Bush launched quickly dislodged the Taliban but did not destroy them. It also failed to capture bin Laden, who escaped across the border into Pakistan and continued to threaten the U.S. until he was killed in a 2011 raid ordered by Obama.
But now the Taliban are back in power, their triumphant return paved by the Trump administration’s agreement last year to pull U.S. forces out of the country, and the apparent failure of President Joe Biden’s administration to anticipate how quickly Kabul would fall.
Mino and hundreds of other Afghanistan War veterans have been frantically trying to help the Afghan interpreters who went into battle with them during America’s “longest war” escape the Taliban.