Unlike a lot of things that happened years or decades ago, September 11th 2001 doesn’t feel like just yesterday. It feels like a long time ago. It feels distant, a piece of history. As an event it is closer to to the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the break up of the Soviet Union, things that loomed large for a much younger me.
Twenty years is a long time and so much has happened since that date. We’ve had five presidential elections, invaded Afghanistan, invaded Iraq, had hurricane Katrina, endured the great recession, saw the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, the Tea Party, ISIS in Iraq, a festering civil war in Syria, gay marriage becoming legal, the election of an unhinged reality TV star as president, an open and proud racist movement, a thermonuclear armed North Korea, the end of civil liberties in Hong Kong, Brexit, an armed attack on the US capitol, a political party going all-in on voter suppression and racism, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
2020 alone felt like it lasted five years. No wonder 2001 feels like distant history.
And that is just what spills into my mind on a first pass. So many other things happened since 9/11 that have pushed it deeper back in memory.
But I still remember the day. It fell on a Tuesday at a time when I had early morning conference calls, the joys of dealing with teams a few time zones away. I had stayed home to take those and the news popped up about the first building being hit as I was getting ready for the first call. I had just turned on the TV when the second tower was hit. It was surreal, watching that run on the news over and over again. The conference call was cancelled. Work was cancelled. Everything was cancelled. All flights in the US were cancelled, and those in flight landed as soon as they could.
By the time the towers collapsed it felt like everybody was watching CNN helplessly, not knowing what to do or what this all meant. It was a unifying national trauma and we were going to do something about it. We sent troops off around the world, my brother included, stirred shit up, killed hundreds of thousands, saw thousands of US service men and women killed, wounded, or traumatized in an effort that, in hindsight, didn’t make us all that much safer and didn’t help the average person in the countries on which we visited destruction. In the end the main beneficiaries seemed to be US defense contractors and a layer of high ranking corrupt individuals who skimmed the cream for themselves.
Despair with US foreign policy runs in our family I suppose. I had a great uncle on my mother’s side of the family who went to work at the State Department after the war, learned Arabic at the army language school in Monterey, and went off to the Middle-east to help make the world a better place. In furtherance of that he he was seconded to the CIA and ended up using his diplomatic cover to carry suitcases full of cash to bribe politicians and finance coups and otherwise help make everything worse for no real long term gain.
He was moved to write a book about his time in the Middle-east due to the harm we had caused over there. He described leaving Beirut in 1975, a city he had loved in the 50s and early 60s, which had become a byword for violence and destruction when he saw it for the final time.
And now there is my daughter, who will turn 20 in December. My wife was six months pregnant when the 9/11 attacks happened. My daughter has never known anything but the War on Terror and security theater at airports and a seemingly endless war in Afghanistan.
I suppose that last is… not over, because history never ends… entering a new era.
I don’t miss the Cold War. Living under the threat of nuclear war was not a happy time, and those who long for the bilateral symmetry of NATO against the Warsaw Pact are glossing over the reality of the time.
But I remember a stretch of time that ran from the late 80s to the mid-90s where there was hope that things would get better, that world would hash out just a few more problems, that we might actually be able to settled things and get, if not peace, then at least something close to it. Gorbachev, German reunification, the fall of the Soviet Union, the expansion of the European Union, the unity of the Gulf War against an aggressor, we seemed to be headed in the right direction. And then, as usual, we fucked it up somehow.
Remember the dead. Comfort the survivors. Hope for something better.