Editor’s note: Video contains profanity and 9/11 scenes that may upset some.
As a child of the ’80s, I reflect now in disbelief that the assassination of John F. Kennedy preceded me by only 17 and a half years.
Growing up, Nov. 22, 1963 seemed not raw and visceral but already etched into the annals of history.
Adults would ask each other, “Where where you when…”—not, it seemed to me, as a way to reconnect with feelings of shock and grief, but to assert their own stake in a nationally momentous, shared experience.
On the 19th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, my own claim to a historical touchstone seems far more complicated.
While 9/11 undoubtedly shaped the national psyche in deep ways that we continue to grapple with, it is starting to feel like a closed chapter.
It’s an anomaly—like a stray blip on the radar of an air-traffic controller—from which the present day arose in spite, not because of.
As we take inventory, yet again, of the attacks’ aftermath, it’s worthwhile to consider some of the many ways America has rapidly evolved since its halcyon pre-9/11 days:
Media has numbed us to catastrophe.
The double-edged sword of immediacy has not simply revolutionized the media industry, but also the way we consume information.
And the toll of having unfiltered access to direct sources of news may be greater than we realize.
Lacking the ability to channel public sentiment toward a common cause, many journalists have relinquished their sacred pledge to seek the Truth.
Nuance also has been scuttled with the urgent need to make each scoop bigger and more impactful than the last.
The sight of the massive fireballs and the collapse of the Twin Towers in real time led networks to temper the sensationalism with reverence and a sense of ethical duty.
Most viewers, with the exception of firsthand witnesses, were spared the ghastly sight of jumpers—thereby ascribing to the few ‘tastefully’ captured records of their deaths a sort of sublime beauty and symbolic resonance.
By contrast, it was a different kind of horror that viewers encountered in recent footage of race-riots—including the deaths of George Floyd and David Dorn, the latter of which was live-streamed on social media.
The lofty, defiant, heroic clash of man versus fate memorialized by 9/11 victims has yielded to the senseless despair of mankind defending against our own hubris.
On one hand, we are fully aware of the constant state of global turmoil and tragedy, which used to be more localized to the affected community.
On the other hand, in order to cope with the ensuing dread, we train ourselves to shrug it off and compartmentalize it more readily.
But if you enjoy feeling as though all you held dear is plummeting toward an infernal chasm of greed, selfishness and, most of all, ignorance, then perhaps Dorn didn’t die in vain.
Terrorism is the new normal.
The great fear of Islamic terrorism was, as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously said, the “unknown unknowns.”
The average American did not wade so deeply into foreign policy as to understand the causes and motives of Al Qaeda, making it an enigma that we trusted our intelligence community to monitor and safeguard us against.
For better or worse, America has since become wiser and more jaded. We long ago learned not to trust the deep state to look out for our best interest.
And—indeed—the greater terrorist fear has become the internal threat to take us down from within.
We now maintain a greater vigilance where once rested complacency. And years of war in the Middle East have brought a better understanding to the masses of the geopolitical dynamics.
In short, while the possibility of our being blindsided by an Islamic sleeper cell still looms constantly, the idea that such an attack might bring the Western world to its knees again seems as anachronistic as Dr. Evil demanding one million dollars in ransom from the United Nations.
Political realignments have shaken America’s identity.
President George W. Bush distilled the 9/11 attacks into a simple matter of good guys and evil-doers who aligned on a moral axis based on their support for American/occidental interests.
Of course, there were those at the time who criticized the ‘Dubya Doctrine’ as neo-imperialism. One of them happened to be his eventual Republican successor, Donald Trump, who saw the boondoggle of war in Iraq as a bad investment.
Still, in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the two opposing parties reliably converged in support of the president, much as they had done for his father in the previous Iraq war.
Only libertarians were left futilely to raise the red flags about cost and privacy—and to gripe about how Democrats and Republicans were merely offering the false illusion of choice.
We now lament those days, when the reflexive response was to rally ’round the flag, given that even the flag itself has become a symbol of controversy for the Left.
President Trump, meanwhile, receives more support from Osama bin Laden’s niece than he does from Bush in his ongoing struggle to preserve and defend traditional American values.
And, suffice it to say, any sort of national crisis, moving forward, is bound to drive the two sides farther to their edges, determined to inflict more damage on their domestic adversaries than to overcome an outside threat.
Room for Hope
Perversely, it is the act of observing and remembering 9/11—for all the sorrow and uncertainty and loss of innocence it wrought—that still offers me cause for optimism.
No longer is its meaning found in a unifying sense of purpose to defeat a common enemy.
Rather, it is the catharsis that it elicits—an overwhelming sense of empathy and compassion, and the awareness of a single common thread of humanity—that I find myself needing to be reminded of.
Knowing the outcome in retrospect, we may not have triumphed over evil—it simply found another host—but it’s enough to say we persevered through it together.