Every American can remember, like it was yesterday, the horrific day that soon became known simply for its date: 9/11.
Like the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, we remember where we were, what we were doing, when the terrible news burst through: that the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City had been hit — first one, then the other — by, as we soon learned, foreign terrorists weaponizing commercial airliners to strike at the world’s (at the time) sole superpower.
In Washington, D.C., my husband and I were sleeping in, having gotten in late the night before after driving cross-country 3,000 miles, when we were waked by a call from my cousin’s wife in Finland: “Are you alright, are you alright?” They had visited us and knew we lived not far from the Pentagon — which, Ursula breathlessly informed us, had just been hit by a plane: “America is under attack!” We rushed to our kitchen window, to see a sight we never could have conjured: the massive Pentagon on fire, sending up billowing clouds of black smoke high into the sky. The words, “The Capital City has been struck, the Capital City has been struck,” began cycling in my head. We turned on the TV and watched, hunched in horror, as first the south tower, then the north tower of the Trade Center collapsed. When an announcer fixed on the ripple effect of buildings as they collapse, I burst into sobs: “Those aren’t just buildings, those are people….”
In the days following, a reverence fell over the country. We glimpsed our best selves: Kindness broke out, as we reached out to friends, even strangers: “Are you alright?” An unphilosophical people, Americans became philosophical, pondering Life, Death, History. For a brief moment we felt unified — as one, under siege — as we spoke of our grief, as we admitted to fear. Fittingly, the requiems of Mozart and Verdi were heard often, as was chamber music. I knew the requiems could not go on forever — Americans can’t do dirges for long — but I hoped the mind-clearing, human-scale chamber music would. Because in the decade preceding 9/11 — after America won the Cold War over its mortal enemy the Soviet Union — American culture went (to put it perhaps simplistically) “wild and crazy.” Victorious, America became like a victorious Rome before its collapse: As the poet Virgil wrote of Rome, without significant external threat, “the path of virtue was abandoned for that of corruption.” In those somber and anxious days following 9/11, Hollywood, uncharacteristically decorous, delayed its new releases of violence, raunch, and “wild and crazy,” deeming it as “too soon.”
But: Soon enough, “wild and crazy” was back — and then some — along with our saving antidote (about which, more later).
And now: We are 20 years after the day when supposedly “Everything changed.” Everything did change — and then some — though not necessarily for the better. Reviews are in on 9/11 at the 20-year mark and, in the main, they are not good, both in the opinion of experts and of the public.
Biggest change for the worse — and one few projected from that purified period just after 9/11: American democracy — or to give it its proper heft, American Democracy — itself is now hard under attack. And, still hard to believe: American Democracy is hard under attack, not from without, but from within: Instead of foreign terrorists inflicting injury on the world’s oldest democracy, it is domestic terrorists, pledging fealty to a proto-autocratic former President of the United States, who laid siege to the U.S. Capitol itself, on January 6 of this 20th year after 9/11. Furthermore, the party (Republicans) allied with this proto-autocrat, a dying party hellbent on regaining power, is now assiduously weaponizing the institutions of American Democracy — voting rights, rule of law, peaceful transfer of power — to lay waste to the very edifice itself.
Abroad, the spectacle has been equally jaw-dropping. America, erstwhile sole superpower, has wielded its immense power heedlessly and recklessly, starting not one but two wars — one of necessity, initially, in Afghanistan, training ground of the 9/11 terrorists, and one of choice, in Iraq, a benighted choice mendaciously driven by the claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Moreover in Iraq, America descended further, morally, by engaging in torture of detainees captured in battle. And now, coming full circle — History’s timing is its own, though this event was teed up by the proto-autocrat’s successor who vowed to end the Afghan war before 9/11’s 20th anniversary: Despite a monumental airlift assembled in just days, our pullout was so bungled that thousands of allies were left behind to the brutal Taliban — an act leaving America’s good name damaged even more, perhaps irreparably. And, yes, the Taliban and other terrorist groups are resurgent in — irony of History — Afghanistan. Meanwhile, other nations — the autocracies China and Russia — now vie for “superpower” status.
How did this comprehensive catastrophe happen for America?
The commentariat has served up many factors and theories. But if I have to select one, it’s this: Our polarization, now so bitter and so angry, has driven us to the extreme ends of argument, of policy, to the point where we are playing with our Fortune and Fate. What one President installs, then next one demolishes, taking America in the exact opposite direction, forcing her into wild swings of the pendulum, on both the domestic and international stages. Shakespeare said of anger that it makes us deaf; it also makes us blind and (sorry) stupid. It can hardly be said, in any forum, that America is acting with even a base intelligence, much less finesse, statesmanship, maturity.
Such that: Even in a deadly pandemic — a pandemic going into its 18th month(!) and, with so much viral infection in the air, propagating ever more virulent variants that may resist even the vaccines brought online in record time — we cannot ally ourselves to mount even a rudimentary defense against this contagion, instead falling out over mask-wearing and “getting the jab.” Even to save our lives, we cannot come together. In the language of disease: My fellow Americans, this is malignant; this is…sick.
And truth to tell: It is the Republicans, a dying party, that are acting malignantly — ”sticking it to the Dems” rather than fighting the pandemic; starting two wars; crashing the economy in 2008; ducking a reckoning on race; sponsoring the Capitol insurrection of 1/6 (another infamous event known by its date) and blocking its investigation. Meanwhile Democrats, the body politic’s immune system, need more antibodies. Democrats play fair, while Republicans play foul — a stress test that it’s not clear if democracy, powered by the demos, the people, can withstand.
The antidote? The Conscientious Public. I coined this term, in 2007, to denote that part of the American public righteously protesting the “unjust” war in Iraq, then in its fourth year, and the torture conducted there; and protesting the sleaze flooding the culture, then in Year Six after the date that, again, “changed everything.” In turn, I was protesting the commentariat for giving this public short shrift, as “porn-loving, potty-mouthed, stupid, shopaholic, possessed of the attention span of a flea and, as to political (in)activity, history-averse and criminally apathetic.” At the time I thought my exhortation applied to a season: to end the unending war in Iraq. Now I see, and, being conscientious, the conscientious public must also see: Acting conscientiously, to save American Democracy, must become a way of life and habit of mind — -for as long as it takes, to secure once again America’s foundations. The bonus: Living in heroic mode is a blessing.
Being conscientious, we already know what we need to do, thanks to a clarity made possible, because — in these 20 years since 9/11 — much, if not all, has been revealed.
We must repair American Democracy and fortify it: We must see to the full investigation of 1/6 by the House select committee and use it as a public tutorial on the care and feeding of democracy; we must counter the Republican drive in the states to disenfranchise fellow Americans of the vote; and more. Conversely, we must root out the seeds of autocracy sowed by the just-ousted proto-autocrat, now jarringly manifest: the threats of more violence from rogue militias; the incessant attack on any media critique as “fake,” fomenting the notion that nothing is true and no-one is to be trusted — all fatal to self-government. Also made manifest in the collapse of Afghanistan: Wars, even if necessary as the Afghan war was initially, must redound to the national interest. As I wrote earlier, a war’s premise must justify our troops’ suffering, also of civilians under fire.
In Drama, catharsis reveals. Often seen as purgation of emotion (feeling the pain or joy of the protagonist), catharsis is better seen as understanding finally what was not understood at the outset. The Conscientious Public understands now, finally, what we did not understand 20 years ago — how fragile is democracy, how near is autocracy, how futile war can be. The key is: Mature as we have become through our suffering, can we act on this invaluable knowledge now — without allowing more ruin? On 9/11, the passengers of Flight 93 understood, in an instant, their hijackers’ intent and sacrificed themselves, by commandeering the plane into the earth. Adam Smith said of industrialized economies, there is a “lot of ruin” in a nation. Truly, do we think America can endure another 20 years of ruination…?
We can take heart from our own maturation. Despite generally poor marks for the nation’s reaction, 9/11 inspired much good: philosophical depth, deeper humanity, a new patriotism. It motivated young people into service — military and public. It inspired others into community service and elective office. It inspired others to change course: On that day 20 years ago, as I fixed on a burning Pentagon, I bailed out of Drama and, to make sense of whatever was coming at us, dove into commentary, with my first column titled “Reinventing ‘Normalcy.’” We are still at it.
In New York, at the site of the twin towers, beams of light tracing the phantom towers thrust into the night sky for months afterward, in remembrance of what had been destroyed. In these 20 years since 9/11, the physical structure has been replaced, with One World Trade Center. But, in other crucial ways, this Great Nation still struggles toward the light. We will get there, we will.