About a dozen years after September 11, 2001, I asked a class of college undergraduates what they remembered about the attacks. They had been kids, and those who answered remembered most vividly their parents’ reactions, not their own. It was a fascinating illustration of one dynamic of trauma: The response of those around you figures into how you carry the injury forward. So it has been with the country’s behavior over the past 20 years.
Chaya Roth, a Holocaust survivor whose mother and sister were repeatedly sheltered and saved by non-Jews as they fled across Europe, eventually recognized the healing effect of the courageous generosity—a post-traumatic syndrome of another kind. “That is why I never lost faith or hope in people,” she told me. “If one goes through difficult times, but comes out of these alive, it is because in the last analysis there was someone who provided help.”
What has happened among Americans? Yes, at first we rallied in an uplifting sense of kinship. Three days after 9/11, as I drove to Kent State in Ohio for a colloquium on race, every American flag hanging from an overpass brought a rush of mournful pride, almost tears. At the university, during a small reception, a professor who was surely a star in her church choir suddenly began singing “America the Beautiful.” Some wept openly, others wept within, both in sorrow and in celebration of the bonds of harmony.
And then? The administration of President George W. Bush, combined with local police departments across the country, proceeded to inflict damage on civil liberties that no subsequent president or Congress has been brave enough to repair. The FBI was instructed to investigate every citizen’s tip, no matter how ludicrous or obviously based on personal vendetta. One FBI agent told me that some of his colleagues shared his distaste for the strategy, worrying that innocents would be targeted.
As indeed they were. Muslims were surveilled, hounded, and jailed on the slimmest of pretexts, and held for months during slow-paced background checks that uncovered no terrorists but might naturally have sown the seeds of antipathy toward the United States. The consequences for those illegally in the country were so severe that abused wives feared calling the police, and some undocumented Pakistani residents fled from the U.S. to Canada seeking asylum. When Canadian authorities couldn’t process them fast enough, they crammed into churches and homes in northern Vermont or took refuge in their own vehicles in the deep of winter.
The New York City Police Department began a years-long campaign of infiltration and surveillance of Muslim communities and mosques. The Denver Police Department expanded its practice of infiltrating and monitoring innocuous peace groups. Local authorities across the country, including the NYPD, as The New York Times recently reported, used the confluence of security fears and heightened technology to spread surveillance well beyond counterterrorism and into investigations of common crime—in blatant violation of Americans’ Fourth Amendment right “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.”
Congress hastily passed the Patriot Act, which shot holes through statutory protections that had been enacted in the 1970s after revelations that the FBI, IRS, CIA, and other agencies had illegally spied and played dirty tricks on civil rights leaders, Black Panther members, antiwar activists, and others. The National Security Agency under Bush evaded even the loosest checks by avoiding the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to intercept Americans’ communications without warrants. In the years that followed, when the acute phase of the terrorist threat had passed, Edward Snowden, an NSA employee, made public documentation that showed the NSA vacuuming up “metadata”—phone numbers that connected with one another, including the dates and lengths of phone calls—to map Americans’ contacts.
Some of those abuses have been curtailed—Congress modified the metadata collection two years after Snowden’s revelations. But the information on Americans’ contacts internationally can still be stored, and many other powers to conduct surveillance remain. One of Barack Obama’s most serious faults as president was his failure to reform the post-9/11 surveillance state.
He did issue an executive order barring torture, which appears to have stopped it. But he did not support the prosecution of CIA agents and contractors who, under Bush, had tortured terrorism suspects in “black sites” around the world. (One of Obama’s aides told a reporter that he did not want prosecutions that would risk provoking a rogue CIA!)
Obama also tried to close the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where hundreds were incarcerated after being swept up in Afghanistan and elsewhere. They had been summarily designated “enemy combatants” by Bush officials, who created novel military commissions to conduct trials. But congressional Republicans and some Democrats blocked the prisoners’ transfer to civilian jurisdiction on the mainland, arguing that they might escape, that courthouses might become terrorist targets, and that the military commissions would deliver more punishing justice. From politicians who beat their chests in macho posturing, it was a remarkable display of fear and cowardice.
It was also a surprising gesture of shame from self-styled patriots in the federal courts, the crown jewel in the American system of jurisprudence. Those civilian courts by now, 20 years later, would surely have tried and sentenced to death the accused 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and other plotters. Instead, they languish in Guantánamo at enormous taxpayer expense, their cases entangled in endless litigation over the military commissions’ unjust procedures.
In short, the rule of law, so central to the American ideal, was stripped away by “conservatives” who have yet to see clearly what is worth conserving in their country. Under Bush, two Americans and one legal resident were even seized by the military as enemy combatants, a status that did not stand in the end. But if it had, they would have been subject to indefinite imprisonment without trial.
Outside of government, the 9/11 attacks also gave rise to a cottage industry of extremist bigots who conducted sophisticated online smear campaigns against Islam and all adherents, calling every mosque or Islamic center in the U.S. a front for the Muslim Brotherhood and the terrorist organization Hamas. This might have looked like a fringe movement, but under Donald Trump, some of its supporters moved into positions of power. Acting on the currents of xenophobia running through parts of his base, Trump fueled the hatred and barred entry to the U.S. from a group of Muslim countries, without specifying any particular individuals as posing threats.
The wars triggered by the 9/11 attacks—in Afghanistan and Iraq—were bungled, prolonged, and conducted without what wars require: commitment and sacrifice by the broad American public. Without a war tax, without a military draft, the burdens were borne by a tiny fraction of Americans and their families. The dead, both here and there, leave permanent scars. The survivors’ physical and mental injuries now enter a legacy of harm.
In the ugly exit from Kabul, too, Americans have left behind their reputation, their honor, and their compassion. Even President Joe Biden, who tries to wear compassion on his sleeve, expressed practically none for the terrified Afghans who clamored to leave at the end.
It is as if 9/11 made us stupid, impractical, and amoral. Osama bin Laden could not possibly have imagined such a success when he arranged for airliners to strike the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and presumably the Capitol. The last was foiled by passengers who took over the cockpit and crashed the plane in Pennsylvania.
The Capitol was saved. Its august steps then became the stage for virtually the entire Congress, Republicans and Democrats, to stand and sing “God Bless America”—together. As the PBS Frontline documentary aired September 7 portrayed, however, that scene is now juxtaposed with another: Congress and the Capitol in defiant harmony in 2001, against Congress and the Capitol under attack in 2021. The major difference, of course, is that on January 6, we suffered an attack from terrorists within America. Apparently, God has yet to bless us.
Years hence, Americans too young to have been shaken by the attacks of 9/11 will know only the lasting reactions of their leaders and fellow citizens. They will not be comforted.