Two hijacked planes crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York on Sept. 11, 2001, and America got scared.
Oh, we looked noble and resolute at first. We mourned our dead and rallied around our firefighters. We gave speeches about standing together. Rudy Giuliani, then the mayor of New York, seemed to speak for us all when he stood amid the rubble and quietly said, “The number of casualties will be more than any of us can bear ultimately.”
We vowed to get the bad guys, and polls reported a boost in patriotism. Eight out of 10 of us displayed an American flag after our nation launched airstrikes a month later against the Taliban and al-Qaida.
Then we took the low road. We turned on each other. We went looking for scapegoats. We turned against Muslims first, here and abroad, and then against any perceived outsiders. We conflated terrorists with immigrants. We found our chance to indulge our prejudices, to act on our worst impulses, and we took it.
Not all of us, of course. Far from it. But many of us. Egged on by right-wing politicians, right-wing radio talkers and right-wing cable TV hosts. They knew how to make hay of America’s trauma, how to ride the fear and anger.
Where failures lie
But wait. Wouldn’t it be more fair to say mistakes were made all around? Not really. And we won’t play the game of false equivalency.
Without a doubt, Americans across the political spectrum failed the test as leaders and citizens in the first months and years after the 9/11 attacks.
Too many Democrats in Congress voted alongside almost every Republican for the infamous Patriot Act, which clawed away at our privacy rights out of a false choice between liberty and security. Too many Democrats voted with almost every Republican for the war in Iraq, though they knew there was nothing to the Bush administration’s insistence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction or was complicit in the 9/11 attacks.
Too many Democrats joined Republicans in looking away from the CIA’s black sites in foreign countries, where people were tortured. And all Americans should be ashamed of how we looked away as our government piled up terrorist suspects at Guatanamo Bay Naval Base without charge or due process for now going on 20 years.
But it was right-wing propagandists who fed the fear and distrust, baking it into the American psyche. It was way too many Republican leaders who drove the bus down the low road.
As a writer in the Washington Post recalled last week, President George Bush’s attorney general, John Ashcroft, had this to say weeks after the 9/11 attacks: “Let the terrorists among us be warned: If you overstay your visa — even by one day — we will arrest you.”
It was treacherous for Ashcroft to lump together people who overstay their visas with terrorists.
From 9/11 to the Capitol
A direct line can be drawn from the divisive and reactionary politics pursued after 9/11 — the demonizing of Muslims, the championing of an exclusionary nationalism, a readiness to justify any means to an end — to the mob attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 of this year.
There is no distance between Donald Trump’s false claim, when he was still just a New York real estate developer, that “thousands and thousands” of Muslims cheered in New Jersey when the twin towers fell and his later claims as president that undocumented immigrants were rapists and murderers.
There also was nothing new in this. Fanning the fears of the masses is older than the red-baiting of Sen. Joe McCarthy. Compromising our nation’s principles to gain a feeling of security is older than the Japanese American internment camps during World War II. Loathing the latest wave of immigrants is an American pastime.
After the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, Muslim terrorists were suspected immediately, and politicians and commentators railed against foreigners and immigrants. Until we learned the bomber was a homegrown white supremacist, Timothy McVeigh.
But in the days after 9/11, the worst of us ran with the worst of it — the falsehoods, the small-minded meanness and the trashing of democratic norms — and they have yet to quit running.
If they could convince 66% of Americans that Saddam Hussein was behind the 9/11 attacks, what was to stop them from selling the lie that Barack Obama wasn’t born in this country, that Hillary Clinton was involved in child sex trafficking, that Trump won the 2020 election or that the mob that overran the Capitol was a cheerful bunch of tourists?
The sale has become so much easier to make. As a result of congressional district gerrymandering, more politicians no longer have to appeal to a wide spectrum of voters, but only to that narrow ban of true-believers who decide primary elections.
Finagle an interview on Fox News. Throw around a little bile on Facebook and Twitter, which didn’t exist before 9/11. And you’re a shoo-in.
Open to political violence
Twenty years after 9/11, according to a Washington Post poll, a plurality of Americans — 46% — think our nation has changed for the worse. And we are also today more divided.
One month after 9/11, 74% of Americans said the United States was “united” as a country. Today, only 11% of us believe that. We appear to be at loggerheads on just about everything, from how to run an election to when to wear a mask.
Twenty years later — and this should worry us the most — more Americans are willing to endorse violence to get their way in politics. Thirty-six percent of us, according to a poll by the Survey Center on American Life, now say the “use of force” may be necessary to stop the “decline” of America’s traditional way of life.
Twenty years after 9/11, the fear, the fear-mongering and rank opportunism rage on.
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