Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shatter steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve.
— George W. Bush
September 11, 2001
Is there anyone reading this who doesn’t have vivid memories of the strange and awful day that changed America — and Americans — forever? It was 13 years ago this week that al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four commercial airliners and turned them into weapons of destruction, aimed at the heart of a nation.
The events of that morning came hard and fast. At 8:46 a.m., one of the hijacked jets was crashed into the North Tower of New York’s World Trade Center, and was followed 17 minutes later by a second plane that plowed into the South Tower; less than two hours later, both towers had crumbled and lay in rubble.
At 9:37, the third plane slammed into the western side of the Pentagon in Washington, DC. The fourth plane was headed toward Washington as well — reportedly with the U.S. Capitol as its target — when a group of passengers attempted to overpower the terrorists and gain control of the aircraft; it crashed into an open field in rural Pennsylvania at 10:03.
Nearly 3,000 Americans died that September 11 — a single-day death toll for our country exceeded only by that of the Battle of Antietam, in the Civil War. All civilian air traffic was suspended for the better part of two days; I still get chills recalling the eerie silence in the skies over Birmingham, a vacuum of sight and sound that heightened the sense of loss and uncertainty. In New York City, fires at and around the site of the fallen towers smoldered for weeks. Across the nation, people slowly resumed what had been the routines of daily life, but for most folks I know, not much felt “normal” for weeks, or even months.
In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, President George W. Bush’s approval rating — which had hovered around the 50 percent mark since shortly after he took office eight months prior to 9/11 — rocketed to better than 90 percent. In very real terms, the United States was as united as it had been at any point since World War II.
As Americans began, literally and figuratively, to crawl from the wreckage, a phrase was heard from various quarters — elected officials, leaders of governmental agencies, news commentators of all ideological stripes — repeated so often that it took on the quality of a mantra. Don’t let the terrorists win, it went. If Americans show fear, if we alter the routines of our lives, if we yield for one moment in the rebuilding of our shattered national psyche, the terrorists have won. The president himself took up the theme in a televised address to a joint session of Congress nine days after the attacks.
“After all that has just passed,” said Bush, “all the lives taken and all the possibilities and hopes that died with them, it is natural to wonder if America’s future is one of fear. Some speak of an age of terror. I know there are struggles ahead and dangers to face. But our country will define our times, not be defined by them.”
It pains me deeply to write this, but 13 years later, it is difficult to regard the state of our Union and conclude anything other than that the terrorists have won — or, at the very least, are winning. In the wake of that terrible day, those heinous acts, the naked display of hatred for everything our nation stands for, America has become a nation ruled by fear.
There is fear in our suspicion — and, in some quarters, utter demonization — of the Muslim faith. There is fear in the fetishistic accumulation of guns, the belief in the face of all evidence and data to the contrary that carrying a gun makes one safer — just as there is in the idea that there is no such thing as a responsible gun owner. There is fear in our acquiescence to actions of our federal, state and local governments that clearly are not taken in the interest of freedom — the increasing intrusions on our privacy, the wholesale militarization of police functions, the creeping deterioration of the primacy of individual rights and the presumption of innocence until guilt is proved.
There is fear in our politics, in the pitting of “liberal” against “conservative,” of black against white, of those who support our current president against those who claim to believe that his very elevation to that office is a rank contradiction of the principles on which our country was founded. There is fear in the response to recent events in Ferguson, Missouri — fear and paranoia and hatred that is expressed in actions and language that make a mockery of the idea that America is now or ever will be a “post-racial” society.
There is fear in the complicity of our legislative and judicial branches in facilitating the growing gap between rich and poor, the slow strangulation of the middle class and the elevation of corporate interests over those of the people. There is fear in the perpetuation of prejudice and hatred from media outlets and so-called think tanks, from board rooms and pulpits, from the Facebook pages and Twitter accounts and public and private utterances of people who seem to be afraid of everyone who doesn’t look and think like them.
Americans are afraid. We are afraid of things that are foreign to us, of things of which we are ignorant, of things we can’t see. Worst of all, we are afraid of each other.
“Freedom and fear are at war,” our then-president said in that 2001 address to Congress and the nation. “The advance of human freedom, the great achievement of our time and the great hope of every time, now depends on us.”
So far, we’re failing at that task, the task of defeating fear and advancing freedom. And the farther we get from September 11, 2001, and the visceral memory of our fellow Americans who died that day, the more we seem to dishonor their deaths, to drain their sacrifice of meaning. On the marking of yet another year of distance between that terrible event and we, its survivors, it seems appropriate to ask: Can’t America do better?