Fourteen years later, the old images and stories still come as a bit of a shock to the system. Intellectually, we all know what happened in the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, how horrific it was to watch, how much worse it must have been to witness in person, how unspeakably terrifying it must have been to die in. But the images, the sounds, the minute-by-minute recounting of each event that day, from lower Manhattan to rural Pennsylvania to the Pentagon — it all still packs a punch half a generation later.
In some ways the aftermath has not left us, the hatred expressed that day mutating from the Taliban and al-Qaida into ISIS. In some ways we long ago put it out of mind for the other 364 days a year.
Those were my thoughts this morning, and then I read this provocative piece by Ben Domenech, publisher of The Federalist: “The Day We Forgot.”
“Fourteen years after the greatest terrorist attack on the soil of the United States, one thing is clear: virtually everything we thought about America in the days after 9/11 was wrong.
“Reading through the rhetoric and press coverage of the time as we approached this anniversary, a few threads run through nearly every piece and speech. First, that Americans are more united than they have ever been in understanding who we are and our place in the world. Second, that we are grappling with a new and different sort of enemy, but one that will be defeated with the same American attributes that have sustained us in the past. And third, that so long as we act with purpose and clarity, the world will stand with us in what we must do next – that we are not alone.
“Fourteen years later, it is astonishing the degree to which these and other lessons of that day have been forgotten, rendered moot, or cast aside.
“Shocking as it seems, America didn’t learn much at all from 9/11. It was not a particular moment of cultural or political change in American society. No generally held assumptions were overturned. No historical watershed was reached. It yielded no great art or literature. The monuments to the dead are for the most part defeatist, not expressions of resolve. What was baked into America’s future on the 10th of September, 2001 was still there on the 12th of September, 2001. The nation did not change.”
That is, of course, at odds with what I think all of us felt that day, and with what we tell ourselves when we remember to think about it. 9/11 was going to change us, and we were going to work to ensure it was for the better. Jay has a nice piece today about someone who’s tried to do just that, and there certainly are other examples. But as Domenech’s piece goes on to document the lack of change in various facets of life and politics, it’s a real question as to whether, in the big picture, we’ve been telling ourselves a lie.
As Domenech goes on to write, it’s for the better that some things about Americans haven’t changed. But my question — and it’s definitely a question — for you today is: Are we as a better nation or a worse one on Sept. 11, 2015, than we were when we woke up 14 years ago, and what did 9/11 have to do with that?
There are plenty of partisan points to be made from any viewpoint, but those are too predictable to be worth much. I’m interested in a broader view than that. I’m curious to see what y’all think.