Today marks eighteen years since the attacks in New York, Washington, and the foiled one that crashed in a Pennsylvania field. Since then, what have we become?
I remember driving home from school that afternoon, listening to NPR as they covered the aftermath live, and the days afterward; going out before dawn to walk Sam and not hearing the usual air traffic overhead, thinking of the yet-unimaginable responses this country would have to such a brutal attack. I don’t think I had the foresight to wonder how it would change our national psyche, but I remember thinking that whatever happened, I hoped it would be for the better.
It has not. In the years since, we have become more narrow-minded, paranoid, defensive, and easily frightened, even when we have tried to respond to our better angels. Seven years after the attack we elected our first African-American president, many of us with the hope that this was a sign of healing and growth, only to have it turned immediately to hatred, recrimination, and xenophobia against our own. The fear of the Other, be they from different countries, of different ethnicities, or even of a non-conformist sexual orientation, became fodder for political ambition and divisiveness. Instead of coming together, we pushed away. As so many have noted, the goal of terrorism is to kill not one person but kill as many as possible not to achieve a body count but to weaken the body as a whole. In that regard, the attacks that Tuesday morning were a success.
Look at what we have become. We flinch; let one deranged individual try to bring down an airplane with a sneaker and we spend ten years shuffling barefoot through the airport. We kneejerk; when African Americans rightly point out that America is still dealing with its original sin — slavery and Jim Crow and the social structure it created — and football games become a clash of symbolism over an icon. When black men are killed by police and people object, it is no longer a cause for examination of a culture but a rallying cry for racists. And when we elect a president who embodies the worst aspects of authoritarianism, narcissism, and cannot think beyond the end of the last election cycle, we have allowed ourselves to become the pawns of those who would like to bring us down, not just to their level but to where we can be conquered; not by an army but by our own lizard-brain reflexes.
We’ve been here before and we’ve recovered from worse. There have been countless good deeds of healing and growth since that day, even though it takes reminding. We have seen over and over we can do better, even if the bellicose and the tweeters drown them out. The number of us who want to work together is greater than those that wish to keep us apart; we just have to be that much more assertive. As I’ve said so many times, hope is our greatest weakness, but it is also like gravity: invisible, immeasurable, but constant and unconquerable. Channeled with action and reinforced with a belief in ourselves and what we can do together, hope can win.
9/11/01 by Art Spiegelman for The New Yorker.