Twenty years ago today, I woke up and then the nightmare began. First as heard through the calm voice of NPR’s Bob Edwards, then as seen in increasingly horrific images and video clips on TV and online that revealed the United States was in for one of the most painful days of its existence.
As I wrote to fellow tech journalists on a mailing list that night: “I just had to turn off the TV. I can’t stand to watch the clips of the plane crashing into the building anymore–I keep hoping the jet will miss, but it never does.”
The moments of September 11, 2001 that have stayed with me the most, however, aren’t in any photo or video I can inspect today. Biking to the Washington Post as D.C. was rapidly emptying of its daytime population, with the gigantic plume of smoke at the Pentagon rising into a sky of fear… anxious back-and-forth with friends in New York via AOL Instant Messenger when other means of communication failed… seeing a colleague burst into tears at the thought of all the financial-industry voices she had known who were silenced… the ride home through a grief-stricken city with troops on street corners and a quiet sky.
It was all a stunning realization of our own vulnerability. But today, 9/11 also strikes me as the day when any wishful thinking that the 21st century had freed us from the mistakes of the 20th got crushed, conclusively and cruelly.
The 20 years since haven’t been much kinder with their lessons about thinking we have escaped history. We started a war in Afghanistan that we mission-creeped into a doomed exercise into propping up a corrupt government, then launched a war in Iraq with no connection to 9/11 or even a reality-based assessment of our national interest. We did find and kill the author of the 9/11 attacks, but terminating Osama bin Laden’s crimes against humanity did not make us that much quicker to end the atrocities of the Daesh death cult that has no right to call itself “Islamic.”
At home, the body counts from gun deaths and opioid abuse grotesquely exceed those of 9/11 but invoke no somber anniversary commemorations or giant American flags draped from office buildings. And then we decided the way out of these turbulent times was to give the most powerful job in America to Donald Trump, who could never be accused of being too subtle or mild-mannered like his predecessor and instead inflicted a four-year reign of lies, cruelty, bigotry, and incompetence that culminated in a violent attempt to overturn the election. Jan. 6, 2021 scared me as a neighbor of the federal government in a way no other day had since Sept. 11, 2001.
As I type this, the pandemic that has now killed nearly one in every 500 Americans grinds on, even as many refuse to take the vaccines that can do more than anything else we know to free us from this plague. The more I think about 9/11-conspiracy lies, the more I see them as the extended beta test for the anti-vax delusions now afflicting my country.
Yet despite all that, we have made it a fifth of the way into this century, and at least many of us see the broken things we need to fix more clearly than we did 20 years ago. Today, I don’t want to think about the crimes committed then as much as the bravery, sacrifice and persistence we saw afterwards. And which endure today.