It’s common to talk about the September 11 attacks using the word “tragedy.” What people are usually referring to is the thousands of innocent lives lost that day. They’re right, of course. What’s forgotten is the opportunity that slipped away soon after, leading to yet more tragedy.
The events of twenty years ago could have been a chance for Americans to realize what kind of impact the foreign policies pursued in their name have had on millions of ordinary people around the world, and to change course before more blood was spilled. Of course, that’s not quite how it went.
For decades, Americans had been fed a narrative of their country as the world’s superman: an implacably decent good guy standing up for truth and justice, crushing the world’s villains along the way. A long list of bad things had happened to the American people in the preceding decades, but outsiders who wanted to do them harm attacking on home soil? That hadn’t happened since World War II — the event from which that story was born in the first place.
So the idea that there were people out there who could, let alone would, do innocent American civilians harm, and on that scale, came as a shock. The country’s rage and sadness, sustained by endlessly looping footage of the attacks broadcast by a media that recognized a ratings bonanza when it saw one, ended up being channeled into a geopolitical revenge fantasy that happened to neatly overlap with the Right’s long-standing foreign policy goals.
Newspapers around the country reported everyday Americans talking like serial killers:
- “If they find the country that did it, they should annihilate it.”
- “We have to find them, kill them, wrap them in a pigskin and bury them. That way, they will never go to heaven.”
- “If I could get my hands on Bin Laden, I’d skin him alive and pour salt on him. Nothing would be cruel enough.”
- “Level the country that’s harboring them. The whole country.”
What set people off the most was that they had gone after “civilians at their desks and airline passengers on the way to work and home,” in the words of LA Times columnist Steve Lopez: innocent people who were “lucky to have five seconds to get on the phone and say goodbye to loved ones before death comes without meaning.”
Musing on how even the attack on Pearl Harbor paled in comparison, one Vietnam veteran offered that “they both were surprise attacks, but at least it was a military target.” This new enemy was “not morally developed enough to comprehend the difference between civilians and combatants,” wrote Mark Helprin in the Wall Street Journal. “I say, bomb the hell out of them,” raged Georgia Democratic senator Zell Miller. “If there’s collateral damage, so be it. They certainly found our civilians to be expendable.”
What kind of monster, many Americans decided, could support Osama bin Laden’s sick vow not to “differentiate between those dressed in military uniforms and civilians”?
They were right. We don’t need a ponderous think piece to understand why it’s heinous to punish innocent people for their leaders’ crimes. We know it in our gut. In their disgust, the US public came to the same conclusion, without realizing it, as the scores of human rights lawyers, legal experts, and moral philosophers who had encoded the laws of war and spent decades trying to hold leaders accountable to them.
For decades, the American people’s own leaders had operated on the world stage according to this same rotten calculus. In its battle against Bin Laden, the US military had, just three years earlier, infamously torched the pharmaceutical factory responsible for 90 percent of Sudan’s major drug products, leading to who knows how many thousands of preventable deaths. Caught out, the government simply lied that it was a “disguised chemical weapons factory” and covered up any attempt to tell the truth.
If only it had been an isolated incident. Whether it was killing three thousand in the invasion of Panama, murdering dozens in the bombing of a mental hospital in Grenada, slaughtering many more thousands of Iraqis by direct attacks on civilians and critical infrastructure in the Gulf War, or ending the lives of hundreds of thousands in Vietnam, Washington officials had been the Chuck Berry to Bin Laden’s Elvis, pioneering the moves he would later become famous for while Bin Laden was still a teen wearing bell-bottoms on vacations to Sweden.
There may have been some genuine psychos who just wanted to slaughter Arabs and treat “the American Civil Liberties Union and its like as the enemies of Christian civilization they are,” as one Hawaiian attorney said. But most Americans, kept in the dark about the crimes committed in their name, simply felt a sense of grief and fear that could be easily exploited by their leaders to justify the use of Bin Laden–style tactics in yet more overseas adventures. Even today, what is the average American more likely to “know” about the Vietnam War: that US forces dropped twice as many bombs on Southeast Asia as in the entirety of World War II? Or that the United States lost in Vietnam because the politicians wouldn’t let us fight?
The quest to avenge just shy of 3,000 civilian deaths in New York and Washington has now resulted in the deaths of at least 400,000 civilians, in a series of seemingly never-ending wars, all of them in countries whose governments were entirely uninvolved in an attack that was, in fact, carried out and facilitated by Saudis. In the process, the United States sent just over 7,000 of its own soldiers to their deaths. Which means that, in the end, Al Qaeda could never measure up to American politicians themselves in the business of taking American lives.
To this day, September 11 is a solemn day of remembrance and grief throughout the United States that many are still not over or that, for some, still makes their blood boil. In the wake of the attacks, Americans, in their fury, felt they were justified in demanding understanding from the world for the criminal excesses they carried out in their grief. Yet exactly such feelings, on the part of those terrorized by American power in the years before (and after) September 11, had inspired the attacks in the first place.
In the wake of the attacks, no effort was spared to shut up anyone who tried to explain the context of what had just happened. Such talk was dismissed as the disloyal ramblings of America-hating moral relativists. How can the public even begin to contemplate the ramifications of US foreign policy when only a few hours a year of TV news coverage have been devoted to America’s longest ever war — or, in the case of 2020, five minutes of coverage?
There were two tragedies of September 11. One was the thousands of lives lost at the hands of fanatics whom Americans were right to call monsters. The second tragedy was that, deceived by their political leadership and media, Americans spent the next two decades becoming the very thing they hated. Thank God they’re waking up.