Sept. 11, 2001: A day that, like Imperial Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor more than 70 years ago, “will live in infamy.”
Each year, we remember the thousands of innocent lives claimed by the attacks on 9/11, flooding social media with posts that read “Never forget” and images of the burning World Trade Center towers. 9/11 has been ingrained into our collective psyche in ways that we might still be too close to the event to fully understand. Certain images have been adopted into the American mythos: New Yorkers emerging from clouds of debris to flee across the Brooklyn Bridge; Todd Beamer, the “Let’s roll” man and a group of passengers storming Flight 93’s cabin to crash the plane before it reaches its intended target; two crossbeams of the World TradeCenter falling together to form a cross in the wreckage, with firefighters and NYPD officers looking on.
The way we talk about and remember Sept. 11 has evolved to carry with it certain expectations about what it means to be an American, and the events that day forever redefined the word “patriot.” The very name of the anniversary, “Patriot Day,” evokes a nationalist fervor that makes it easy to overlook the complex effects that 9/11 had on both foreign and domestic national policy. But like with the attack on Pearl Harbor, we should remember tragedy in the context of what follows.
Immediately after FDR’s “day which will live in infamy” speech, the United States entered World War II and ultimately decided to use nuclear weapons on Japan, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians and forever shaping the international balance of power. The sociopolitical and international situation following 9/11 is worth a similar examination.
On Sept. 14, President George W. Bush visited Ground Zero and scrambled to the top of a pile of rubble, addressing a crowd as he wrapped his arm around a New York firefighter. He thanked the first responders who worked on that day, and when someone in the crowd said he couldn’t hear, Bush called out through a bullhorn, “I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people – and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”
With that line, Bush established the United States’ mentality in the weeks and months that would follow. Less than a week later, the president announced a new “War on Terror” that sought to rid the world of the extremist violence that facilitated the 9/11 attacks. The U.S. military invaded Afghanistan to oust the Taliban and bring the attack’s mastermind Osama
bin Laden to justice. Today, the Taliban still remains a powerful force in the region, and bin Laden evaded capture for another 10 years.
Just two years later, the United States invaded Iraq under the premise that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, claims that were ultimately unsubstantiated.
Both conflicts dragged on for years, further destabilizing the region and fermenting anti-Western sentiment. In the decade of chaos and sectarian violence that followed, hundreds of thousands of Afghanis and Iraqis (as well as 8,000 Americans) were killed.
Even at home, 9/11’s impact was (and still is) felt much deeper than the patriotism rhetoric might suggest. The attacks triggered waves of Islamophobia and hate crimes against Muslims that still, in some ways, echo today. Following 9/11, the government created the Department of Homeland Security and increased the role of the National Security Administration, beginning widespread invasions of privacy by way of phone and email-tapping. The attacks that day ushered in a new era of suspicion and the violation of personal rights not unlike that caused by the Red Scare and McCarthyism.
On the anniversary of 9/11, we should remember the innocent lives lost on that day and the heroism of the first responders who risked their lives to rescue them, but we should take care not to understate the significance of that moment in both American and world history.