Twenty-two years ago, I sat in the office — actually the bottom two floors of a Victorian home with creaking, carpeted floorboards and an overstuffed kitchen — at Daily Information, the local paper where I worked in Oxford. It was mid-afternoon, and I probably had Dreamweaver open; I can’t remember exactly now. I’d taken a year’s break from my computer science degree because my as-yet-undiagnosed anxiety had gotten the better of me in the wake of the death of a close friend. It was the first job I’d ever had that paid for lunch, and the remains of a wholewheat bread slice with spicy red bean paté sat on a plate beside me. Between that and the array of laser printers, the room smelled of toast and ozone.
My dad showed up and told me what had happened: the twin air strikes of September 11, 2001, the details of which are now part of our indelible cultural consciousness. For the rest of the afternoon, we tried to learn what we could, refreshing website after website on the overloaded ISBN connection. One by one, every news website went down for us under the strain of unprecedented traffic, with the exception of The Guardian. I alternated between that and a fast-moving MetaFilter thread until it was time to go home. I vividly remember sitting at the bus stop, watching the faces of all the people in the cars that drove past, thinking that the world would likely change in ways that we didn’t understand yet.
George W Bush was President of the United States: a man who previously had presided over more executions than any other Governor of the State of Texas in history (roughly one every two weeks). While the attacks themselves were obviously an atrocity, he was, in my eyes, unmistakably an evil, untrustworthy leader, and it wasn’t clear that he wouldn’t start a terrible war in response. That was the fear expressed by most of my friends in England at the time: not who was behind the attacks and why?, but what will America do? I was the only American in my friend group, but I shared the same fear.
Of course, now we all know the story of the next two decades. We invaded Iraq under false pretenses, established a major erosion of civil liberties ironically called the PATRIOT Act which granted unprecedented authorities that live on to this day, and racist anti-Muslim rhetoric cranked up to eleven. All in the name of 2,753 people who didn’t ask for any of it. Even the first responders, much lauded at the time, struggle to get the support they need.
In 2002, my parents moved back to California to look after my Oma, and I joined them for a few months. I had the whole row on my transatlantic flight to myself, which seemed strange until I remembered, mid-flight, that it was September 11, 2002 (in retrospect probably the safest day to fly in history). When I arrived, I saw that the freeways were littered with tiny American flags that had fallen off the cars they had presumably been waving from over the last year. As a metaphor, discarded disposable American flags bought to illustrate a kind of temporary superficial patriotism seemed a little on the nose.
While the roads were littered with flags, the air was still thick with fear. My parents had moved to Turlock, a small town outside of Modesto where the radio stations mostly played country music and almond dust polluted the air. There was still a feeling that the next attack could happen at any time, and if it did, why wouldn’t it be here? The dissonance between the significance of the World Trade Center in New York City and the Save-Mart in Turlock seemed to be lost on them. It could happen anywhere. It was the perfect environment for manufacturing consent for war. What did it matter that Saddam Hussein had precisely nothing to do with the attacks and that the purported weapons of mass destruction were obviously fictional? He was brown too, wasn’t he? And, boy, we needed to get revenge.
Even now, I wonder if I should be writing these opinions. In a way, September 11 has become a sacred event. And, seriously, what gives me the right to be talking about it to begin with?
But the tragedy of that day has touched all of us, everywhere. It has also been used as a cover for harms that continue to this day. The deaths of those innocent people are still used to justify erosions of civil liberties; they are still used to justify racism; they are still used to justify mass surveillance domestically and drone strikes internationally; they are still used to justify draconian foreign policies. If any lessons at all were learned from September 11, I think they were the wrong ones.
There’s an alternate universe where America as a population decided that funding and arming covert operations in foreign nations to support American aims was a bad idea. The late Robin Cook, MP, the former British Foreign Secretary, wrote in the wake of the July 7 bombings in London:
In the absence of anyone else owning up to yesterday's crimes, we will be subjected to a spate of articles analysing the threat of militant Islam. Ironically they will fall in the same week that we recall the tenth anniversary of the massacre at Srebrenica, when the powerful nations of Europe failed to protect 8,000 Muslims from being annihilated in the worst terrorist act in Europe of the past generation.
[…] Bin Laden was, though, a product of a monumental miscalculation by western security agencies. Throughout the 80s he was armed by the CIA and funded by the Saudis to wage jihad against the Russian occupation of Afghanistan. Al-Qaida, literally "the database", was originally the computer file of the thousands of mujahideen who were recruited and trained with help from the CIA to defeat the Russians. Inexplicably, and with disastrous consequences, it never appears to have occurred to Washington that once Russia was out of the way, Bin Laden's organisation would turn its attention to the west.
The CIA, for the record, denies this. But there’s no denying the effect of American foreign policies overall, from Chile (whose US-aided coup was 50 years ago today) to Iran, let alone the disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s still a mystery to some Americans why the rest of the world isn’t particularly fond of us, but it really shouldn’t be. (And it’s not, as some particularly tone deaf commentators have suggested, jealousy.)
I remember visiting Ground Zero for the first time. By that time, reconstruction was underway, but the holes were clearly visible: conspicuous voids shot through a bustling, diverse city. I think New York City is one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been to: all kinds of people living on top of each other in relative harmony. It’s alive in a way that many places aren’t. Every time I visit I feel enriched by the humanity around me. One of the reasons I live where I do now is to be closer to it.
I think New York City itself is a demonstration of the lesson we should have learned: one that’s more about cross-border co-operation and humanity than isolation and dominance. To put it another way, a lesson that’s more about love than fear. Some conservative politicians talk derisively about “New York values”, but man — if those values were actually shared by the whole nation, America would be a far better place. That was obvious in the way the city came together that day, and it’s been obvious in the way it’s held itself together since.
In contrast, I think the way America as a whole responded to the September 11 attacks directly paved the way to Trump. It enriched a right-wing populist leader and his party; it created divisive foreign policy based on a supremacist foundation; it once again marked people with a certain skin tone and a different religion as being second-class citizens; it promoted nationalism and exceptionalism; it eroded hard-won freedoms for everyone. We can thank Bush for stoking those fires.
True progress towards peace looks like a collaborative world where we consider ourselves to have kinship with everyone of all religions, skin tones, and nationalities, and where every human being’s life has inherent value. It looks like building foreign policy for the benefit of all people, not the people of one nation. It looks like true, vibrant democracy. It doesn’t look like performative flag-waving, drone strikes, religious intolerance, homogeneity, or surveillance campaigns.
Saying so shouldn’t dishonor the memories of everyone who died on that day, or everyone who died as a result of everything that followed. It also doesn’t besmirch our values. One of the greatest things about America is our freedom to hold it to account. That’s what democracy and free expression are all about. And those values — collaboration, inclusion, freedom, representation, multiculturalism, democracy, and most of all, peace — are what we should be working towards.