Across the country, there are dozens of memorials that recall the events of Sept. 11, 2001, the day when nearly 3,000 Americans were killed by terrorists who hijacked four commercial jets, crashing them into the World Trade Center towers in New York, the Pentagon and a rural Pennsylvania field. That legacy will be now be further burnished with the recently opened “Tower of Voices” in Shanksville, Pa., a 93-foot-tall edifice featuring wind chimes honoring the passengers and crew of United 93 who fought back against their captors.
It has been 17 years since that brutal day. Looking back at 9/11 from the perspective of 2018 is equivalent to recalling the end of World War II from the early days of the Space Race or perhaps the John F. Kennedy assassination. It seems both recent and far, far away. Perhaps the most telling measure, at least politically, is this: In the next presidential election, some young voters will go to the polls who were not born until after that day’s infamous events. They have never known a time when al-Qaida or Osama Bin Laden were not firmly in the public consciousness.
Yet it is important on this 21st century “Day of Infamy” to recall both what happened then and what hasn’t happened since. To put it simply, mistakes were made. U.S. intelligence failed to pick up on warning signs of a possible attack. Lax airport security allowed terrorists to bring weapons aboard four planes. For a time afterward, though, we reacted with sadness but also unity, clarity and resolve. Then-President George W. Bush invaded Afghanistan where al-Qaida flourished under Taliban extremism. NATO and many other allies joined in. The United States response was straightforward — bring justice to those who perpetrated this crime. And even President Bush emphasized that Islam was not the enemy, those with a warped view of Allah and the faith were to blame.
“The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends. It is not our many Arab friends,” Mr. Bush said nine days after the attack. “Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them.”
Yet America soon veered from that clear course with an invasion of Iraq falsely justified on the grounds that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Most of our allies turned aside. Hundreds of thousands were killed. The financial toll to the U.S. was massive, measuring in the trillions of dollars. Meanwhile, the U.S. proved unable to move Afghanistan toward a functioning independent state; and extremism, instead of proving weak and on the run, changed banners and locations. If anything, the Middle East became less stable as a Syrian civil war escalated and a humanitarian crisis spread to Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.
The U.S. can take some comfort that there hasn’t been a massive terrorist assault on U.S. soil since 9/11. Yet there have been dozens of smaller-scale incidents of terrorism here. The violence is most commonly not related to radical Islam, but there have been other incidents that were — including the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 and the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016.
Shaking a fist at extremists, denouncing terrorism, investing in costly military weaponry, calling for tighter immigration policies (never mind that post-9/11 attacks are most commonly perpetrated by legal residents of this country who were radicalized here and not abroad), these have become the mantra of U.S. politicians. Diplomacy, humanitarian aid, help for refugees and dealing with the underlying problems that cause terrorist groups to prosper? That seems to have been discarded. Gone is a president describing Islamic teachings as “good and peaceful,” as President Bush was able to do in the shadow of 9/11. Instead, we are given the bellicose rhetoric using a half-remembered attack to stoke fear of foreigners.
“The attacks were carried out by foreign nationals who exploited our lax immigration laws and defrauded our immigration system in order to murder nearly 3,000 innocent people,” President Donald Trump said in a July radio address justifying aggressive actions by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Never mind attackers like the Pulse shooter, Omar Mateen, who killed 49 and wounded 53 and was born in Hyde Park, N.Y.
Yes, Americans are still angry, the nation is still hurt, but we seem unwilling to see events with clarity, to distinguish between Iraq and Afghanistan, or Sunni versus Shiite, or friend and foe. The question to ask is not how 9/11 shaped the U.S. and its foreign policy, the question is how is the nation continuing to shape its understanding of 9/11?
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