Twenty Years

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.

8 thoughts on “Twenty Years

  1. Whoom

    Great Article. We are, I think, much of an age. My oldest turns 20 at the end of November.

    It sums up very well how I feel about the last 30 or so years. With the Soviet Union collapsed and the rise of the internet, it felt poised for a new, safer world order. When those people who were so unknowably far away in our youth were now fairly easy to chat with and communicate with, it seemed destined for a much happier world.

    And then 9/11 happened and pretty much shattered that vision.

    Somehow we have ended up much closer to Orwell’s version of the future than Roddenberry’s.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. bhagpuss

    Spot on. I am not a natural pessimist and I fully believe the ongoing process of cultural and social improvement will continue, as it has throughout human history, but that’s a comfort for social historians and generations as yet unborn. For all the line curves slowly upward when you pull the camera back, in close-up it’s jagged as hell and this is a trough.

    And yes, it does seem a very long time ago indeed. No-one mentions it much these days, either. Sometimes I see a plane flying overhead and have a brief flashback to that late summer, when any plane in the sky brought on a moment of panic, even on this side of the Atlantic. For a year or two I wouldn’t fly. We took the ferry and drove when we went abroad. Those apprehensions are probably as meaningful now but we don’t think about it much any more or I don’t.

    I think we’re probably all a bit more worn down by life, now.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Nimgimli

    Thank you for this post.

    I was on the way to work when it came over the radio that a plane had hit a building, with no other details, and I remember thinking “What a dumb-ass, I hope no one other than the pilot was hurt” since I was envisioning a Cessna or something.

    By the time I got to work we had a lot more details. Most of the news sites ground to a halt as so many people were trying to get info. I was running a gaming forum at the time and we used a thread there to update each other since it was one site we could all get to.

    We were all sent home. I just remember the silence. I was living in Cambride, MA, and it was just eerie. I had never realized that you could almost always hear a plane overhead and their absence was startling. When you did hear one there was this sense of panic, fortunately it was always US military. (There was some fear Boston would also be a target…probably that fear was in every city that day.)

    And I too, miss those days when it felt like things were progressing. The world was feeling safer and more progressive. Then it all started tumbling again. Now it just feels like it is in freefall.


  4. Yeebo

    I was living in Pittsburgh at the time. A plane went down near us and of course there is an international airport on the edge of town, so we were pretty nervous.

    To me the greatest irony of the last 20 years is how the internet played out. We thought once everyone could learn everything they wanted to know about practically any subject, that easy access to the truth would set us all free. How could we have been more wrong? Instead what great swaths of society did with this new superpower was seek out out whoever was willing to tell them what they were most inclined to believe.

    Then the media moguls discovered that there was real money to be made telling people what they wanted to hear and disguising it as news (tell them what they want to hear, let them think it’s the truth). Suddenly what was happening organically in chat rooms and on message boards all of the net started happening at scale, and with real thought and resources behind it. The end result has been two warring factions operating from fundamentally different concepts of reality, and then tribes within tribes that divide fractally from there, the members of each group reinforcing each other in their shared delusions (or in there shared truths, whether they happen to share lies or truths is almost random).

    Access to every truth was also access to every lie. The internet didn’t set us free, It allowed great swaths of us to enslave ourselves to the delusions of our choice. It was a massive accidental experiment that revealed the average person does not begin to have the mental tools needed to distinguish between the lies that comfort them and the truths they need to hear, or if they do they will always choose comfort.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Yeebo


    Wow, that got dark fast.

    While I don’t have high hopes for society, I do have high hopes for most of us individually. The global standard of living does keep going up. A lot of stuff I have now makes everything I owned 20 years ago look stupid in comparison, and I am not vastly more well off.

    The next big technological revolution is probably going to be biotech, and some of that may come down the pipe in time to make our old age a lot better than it has traditionally been. Now that everyone can set up a CRISPR lab in their basement if they want to, biotech is pretty close to where computers were in the 1970s (or whenever it got to the point that anyone could play around with the basic tech if they really wanted to…I didn’t first notice computers until the 1980s).


  6. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Yeebo – I feel you. The promise of the internet was to bring us together and find more people who shared our interests, but it worked out for people with hateful, negative interests as well as for those sharing benign or positive interests. Those people were always out there, but that they can group up and focus hate has been a bad turn.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. wowstorylines

    I agree with everything that you’ve said. I lived through the experience of being a dedicated military and law enforcement family and I just sit here and shake my head with sadness and wonder. Will humanity ever learn? My only child is 50 years old and I’m 72 – yep it has been a long troubling time, however, I keep hoping that things will change for the better.


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