9/11 changed this country profoundly. Not for the better.
As another anniversary passed with the usual – and appropriate – grieving and remembrances, my thoughts went back to that day and its aftermath. I stood on the plaza as Calhoun welcomed students for the first day of a new school day. In that moment my son called from North Carolina and, surreal indeed, described what he had seen on CNN, happening only a few miles from our school. The rest of the day was terrifying and complex as we endured a bomb scare and shared the fears that overwhelmed the city and nation. The day ended with a steady stream of ash-covered survivors walking uptown and the acrid fumes from ground zero permeating the air as the sun set.
Among the responses from our leaders, George W. Bush in particular, were exhortations to not “let the terrorists win.” Perhaps most absurd was the suggestion that we shop, implying that shopping is a particular American virtue and its exercise would be a powerful rebuke to terrorism. It was also repeatedly stated, up to the present day, that the attacks were because “they hate our freedoms;” freedom to shop among them, I suppose. More sober analyses conclude that our presence in Saudi Arabia, our repressive acts toward Iraq, and our unconditional support of Israel were primary among other geopolitical motivators.
I suppose an introductory acknowledgement is necessary, lest my words draw anger or re-open wounds: The deep grief of victims’ families and the selfless courage of first responders and others are undeniable.
But 9/11 drew less noble responses that have contributed to – or created – the desperate straits in which our nation now founders.
We have always lacked perspective. It is unpopular, but true, to observe that we think our tragedies are the most exceptional tragedies and our heroic acts are the most exceptionally heroic. On the exceptional tragedy scale, our losses on 9/11 pale in comparison to the losses suffered in Iraq due to our military lashing out – at the wrong target. And more recently, the Moroccan earthquake and Libyan floods have been more devastating in magnitude and rescue efforts in such instances are certainly on an equally heroic scale.
Aside from representing chronic nationalist narcissism, 9/11 was the spark that ignited steadily growing inclination to unite around narrow patriotism and granted tacit or explicit permission to vilify or exclude “the other.”
In the immediate aftermath, Sikh taxi drivers in NYC displayed huge American flag decals as partial protection against hate crimes. Anti-Muslim sentiment was widespread, with toxic rhetoric and actions directed toward a faith and its adherents (who could teach many of us a thing or two about peace and kindness).
But the more insidious and destructive effect has been the migration of this dynamic into our broader political and social environment. Quite obviously, the generalized fear mongering over Muslim terrorists was co-opted by a broader anti-immigrant sentiment. Despite overwhelming evidence that Black and brown immigrants present less criminal threat than the rest of the population, they are easily demonized. The seeds of that demonization were planted after 9/11.
The idea of an “American” constricted in the wake of 9/11. This constricted construct led directly to the growth of a white nationalist movement that had theretofore been largely in the shadows. It led directly to the dramatic increase in hate crimes against Asian-Americans and gay Americans. The more exclusive notion of patriotism rising from 9/11 gave racists permission to be, well, more racist. The irrational suspicion of and disdain for Muslim Americans fertilized the growth of a self-satisfied form of Christianity. This, in turn, has formed pockets of society where overt expression of devotion is a social litmus test and the right to discriminate against gay Americans is embedded in jurisprudence.
Most of the dismal antics on the political right are extensions of this shrunken notion of Americanism. Banning the teaching of accurate racial history is a way of demanding that everyone, including people of color, quietly accept the narrative of a beneficent white society. Allowing public prayer (Christian prayer only, of course) is a way of demanding that we unquestioningly accept the narrow view that we are, at the core, a Christian nation where others are, at least for now, generously tolerated.
The banning of books and the passage of odious laws like Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” abomination are ways of sending “the other” back to the margins where they too will be tolerated. Except, of course, when less-bridled bigots are invited to take matters into their own hands, enabled by a backdrop of political rhetoric that intentionally diminishes the humanity of LGBTQ+ folks.
I recall quite vividly the mandatory patriotism expected after 9/11. I worried about the knee-jerk conformity of American flags on every building and the fervent demands for revenge. I saw a narrower circumscription of the American ideal emerging from our singular tragedy.
I can’t say I predicted what we have become.
But I can’t say that I’m surprised.