In light of this past summer's terrorism across Europe, the civil war in Syria, the hundreds of thousands of refugees from Middle Eastern countries, and our own political season, consider this essay I originally wrote for Tuesday, September 11, 2012. Parts of it now sound dated, but my basic point remains relevant:
We live today in a drastically different world than the one that existed September 10, 2001.
And we've gotten used to it. 9/11 is not only a day on a calendar. It has become one of the most well-known dates in human history. It is a noun, whose very mention instantly conjures up images of two skyscrapers engulfed in flames and smoke. Or maybe firefighters marching up staircases towards an unknown fate, while dazed office workers helped each other trudge down those same steps. Or maybe a group of otherwise ordinary airline passengers who chose immediate death over allowing their plane to be turned into a weapon.
An entirely new federal agency was created in its aftermath to make us feel safer. We endure embarrassing pat-downs at airports and other wacky protocols because of it. Kids today willingly march into war because of it. Our Defense Department is stewing over a newly-released book about how America killed 9/11's alleged mastermind. Billions of dollars have been spent in New York City to clear the rubble and construct a vast new complex of memorial structures, office buildings, and mass transit facilities that could hopefully withstand any future attacks at the site of 9/11's most graphic carnage.
In the conventional American spirit of optimism, we generally like telling ourselves that we're more prepared now to deal with any future attacks that might match or exceed 9/11's wrath. And maybe it's true. To a certain degree, we've made a conscious decision to give up some of our perceived freedoms so our government can keep tighter tabs on us and, hopefully, minimize other opportunities for unfriendlies to take advantage of our remarkably open society. To date, nothing on the scale of 9/11 has taken place in the United States, and maybe that's indeed because we're more vigilant; not simply because unfriendlies haven't thought up anything worse... yet.
Conspiracy theorists have had some fun exploiting the unprecedented scale of destruction inflicted on 9/11, trying to claim that our own government perpetrated the attacks. But if you really think our government could have carried out 9/11, you actually have more faith in government than those of us who think conspiracy theorists are delusional.
Other 9/11 hangers-on include liberals who still harbor suspicions regarding whether the Bush administration could have avoided 9/11 altogether. How much did the Bush administration know from the terroristic chatter before 9/11, they ask. But how much does it matter how much they knew then, now that they're all out of office?
One thing Bush did get right: 9/11 represents a significant battle in what we finally realized was a war against jihadist terrorism. Muslims, who had been making steady progress assimilating into American society, suddenly found themselves back where they started with the American people: ostracised, vilified, and misunderstood. Granted, it hasn't helped that as the developed world's war against Islamic fundamentalists has ramped up, many American Muslim clerics have stood silently by, neither cheering their new country on to victory, nor forcefully denouncing the destructive proclivities of their radical religious brethren. Individually, many American Muslims profess allegiance to the United States, but the court of public opinion generally likes to hear such allegiances affirmed by prominent religious leaders in the public square, and that hasn't happened.
Instead, Muslims proposed building what inaccurately became labeled a mosque within blocks of the ravaged World Trade Center site in Lower Manhattan, and then took offense when millions of Americans took offense. To date, a fanciful tower that would house the controversial Islamic worship center remains on the drawing board, while the nondescript building Muslims want to demolish for their new project hosts community art exhibits. Meanwhile, Park 51, the intentionally neutral name for the Islamic group operating the cultural center, has bumbled through leadership changes and lethargic fundraising.
Maybe all of this fear, anger, destruction, and animosity that led up to 9/11, was displayed on it, and has resulted from it has produced something of genuine humanitarian benefit. But if so, it's hard to see, and its cost hardly seems worth it. Judging by right-wing efforts to preserve our Defense Department's staggering budget, it's hard to prove that the world is safer for Americans today, and judging by the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Taliban's wake, almost impossible to prove it's safer for most Muslims. The more hindsight we acquire, we may grow to remember 9/11 not as the end of innocence, since in the context of terrorism's trajectory, 9/11 wasn't first. Rather, we'll see 9/11 more as history's place holder for when our planet finally faced mankind's inhumanity to man head-on.
Some Muslims say they can understand how America's pop culture and foreign policy (which sometimes relies more on our pop culture than diplomacy) contributed to 9/11. That's one reason why many non-Muslim Americans remain suspicious of adherents to Islam. It's a two-way street that oftentimes seems to hold non-Muslims to higher standards, thereby perpetuating their skepticism.
Mostly, however, Americans simply can't understand how different cultural mindsets can fail to appreciate the things we tend to take for granted. We'd prefer for people from other cultures and countries who are jealous of our way of life to work towards the same principles we enjoy: capitalism, republican democracy, relative freedoms, and personal opportunity. Only uber-patriotic goofballs think we Americans are perfect, but many of us understand how our distinctives contribute more good things than bad to our quality of life.
To the extent that those who hate America aren't rewarded by a growing hatred of them by us Americans, the equilibrium in this conflict can remain tilted in our favor.
Which means, then, that 9/11 remains ours to lose.