On Sept. 11, 2021 — the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks — I published Part I of a blog post about the occasion.
I planned to publish Part II the following day, but I didn’t. Nor did I publish it in all the days that followed, even though the text was almost complete, awaiting just a few light edits and a final sentence or two. I had originally intended to pay tribute to the nearly 3,000 people who died on 9/11, as well as those who died years later from illnesses resulting from the attacks. But as Garrett M. Garrett wrote in the Atlantic, the U.S. got nearly everything wrong in the past 20 years. For instance, this year’s 9/11 occurred in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from our longest-ever war — the disastrous 20 years we spent in Afghanistan in response to 9/11. Brown University’s Costs of War project calculates that about 241,000 people were killed in the Afghanistan and Pakistan war zone since 2001, with more than 71,000 of those being civilians. Meanwhile, at home, Covid had killed 660,000 people by mid-September; the number of Covid-related deaths has since surpassed 820,000. Covid isn’t even our only ongoing pandemic. Every year, thousands of Americans die from opiate overdoses, while tens of thousands more die from gun violence (including suicide). And what do we do about it, as a society? Well, we bicker about individual freedoms and disseminate conspiracy theories.
So, as much as I wanted to focus on the individuals lost on 9/11, this era’s indifference to mass death seems like an insult to those poor souls and their devastated families. Even caring as much as I still do about those 3,000 people makes me feel, in a way, manipulated because the truth is out: There is no loss of life large enough to bring Americans together as a nation. As a culture, we care little about our vaunted concepts of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness — unless, of course, those ideals can be expressed in a way that’s convenient and cost-free, and/or used to accumulate money and power.
Anyway, I don’t want to end the year with the rest of that post still on my mind. Start here if you want to go back to the beginning and then pick up here. (Note: I’ve updated the Covid death toll.)
At the time of the 9/11 attacks, we were already in everyone-for-themselves mode. Business interests had spent 20 years sowing distrust of government and influencing the body politic to attack our social safety net. During Ronald Reagan’s two terms, the now-discredited theory of “trickle-down economics” was trotted out to convince the majority of Americans that they would be better off if corporate taxes were slashed AND businesses were freed from environmental regulations AND government spending of public funds on quality of life issues was cut and redirected towards military might. The Republican-driven policies were Orwellian in their gaslighting; the argument was basically, “You’ll get much more when we give you much less.”
Even after Reagan’s Republican vice president and one-term successor George H.W. Bush lost the presidency to Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992, Republicans found another way to wield their influence. They turned to political consultant and former Nixon ally Roger Ailes to proceed with a plan he first articulated in a 1970 memo entitled “A Plan for Putting the GOP on TV News.” Fox News — created and funded by Australian billionaire Rupert Murdoch and directed by Ailes — launched in October 1996. Its target audience were white people who felt disenfranchised by the fraying of social services engineered by wealthy and corporate interests, but who preferred to maintain an imagined connection to those interests, rather than embrace solidarity with Black people, immigrants, and others who had always been excluded from the perks of unrestrained capitalism. The white talking heads of Fox assured those viewers that it was the disadvantaged minorities that were stealing their jobs and lifestyles. The every-more-wealthy white people who signed Fox paychecks and sponsored Fox advertising had nothing to do with it.
Thus, by September 11, 2001, many Americans already felt threatened and were primed to fear people who were “different,” both inside or outside their own country. When the World Trade Center — that towering symbol of American business — crumbled into dust, it was a country ready to lash out indiscriminately. Across the U.S., prejudice and violence against Muslims, or anyone thought to be Muslim, spiked, while in Washington, Republican President George W. Bush (son of George H.W.) swiftly signed into law a joint resolution authorizing the use of force against those responsible for the 9/11 attacks. As the Council for Foreign Relations explains, that joint resolution provided the legal rationale for the Bush administration’s decision to take “sweeping measure” against terrorism, ranging from the invasion of Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, to conducting surveillance of Americans without court orders.
There was, at least, a reason for the initial action in Afghanistan, because its extremist Taliban government was indeed harboring 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden. It took only eight days for the Taliban to ask for negotiations, saying it would consider handing Bin Laden over to a third country if the U.S. stopped bombing. That offer was refused, as was the Taliban’s December 2001 request to surrender its seat of power and demobilize provided its leader Mullah Omar could renounce terrorism and “live in dignity.” (“I think we should go home,” said Taliban spokesman Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, declaring that the group was finished as a political movement.)
Instead, Omar went into hiding and Bin Laden escaped to Pakistan. With our initial objective ending in failure, rather than accept the bigger international setback that Bin Laden hoped for — he thought 9/11 would scare us out of the Middle East and our alliance with Israel — we doubled down. Even finding and killing Bin Laden in 2010 didn’t put an end to the turmoil. Our presence in Afghanistan became about building an idealized Western-style democracy in a culture we didn’t understand, and bringing Afghan women American-style equality and liberty while women’s rights were relentlessly attacked at home. We spent trillions of dollars in Afghanistan but, at the same time, not enough, because we diverted other trillions — and crucial human resources — into different regional conflicts, such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq and our 2014 intervention in Syria’s civil war.
As we threw good money after bad overseas, we continued austerity at home. Inequality and anger continued to balloon until Donald Trump was placed in office by people who, like Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and former Trump adviser Steve Bannon “want to bring everything crashing down.” And Trump’s reign of terror increased the callousness that belies our supposed ideals. Consider that Thomas Jefferson’s short list of unalienable rights includes “Life,” but now we contradict ourselves when it comes to life’s value, just like Jefferson contradicted himself on liberty and for the same reasons — the preservation and growth of individual capital and power. In this world of ours, fetuses conveniently generate votes while requiring no investment, so they are prioritized over the the lives of mothers, as well as the feeding and education of children who have actually been born. A devotion to gun rights gets voters to the polls and opens the wallets of lobbyists, so why would politicians change their ways just because 20 six- and seven-year-olds were shot to death in their school? And 3,000 lives lost on 9/11 was a boon for the military-industrial complex, but 20 years later, 820,000 deaths from Covid are just bad for the economy.
I never did finish the last few sentences there. So now I’ll just say, despite everything, the righteous thing to do is never give up. Don’t give in to the prevailing attitude that other people’s lives don’t matter. Do what is within your ability to set a better example. As lawyer/activist Florynce Kennedy said, “You’ve got to rattle your cage door. You’ve got to let them know that you’re in there, and that you want out. Make noise. Cause trouble. You may not win right away, but you’ll sure have a lot more fun.”