Great crises in American history have frequently inspired the country to great achievements.
The Civil War resulted in the emancipation of African-Americans and a massive domestic investment programme in railroads, colleges, and other institutions. World War II aided in the development of the modern middle class and established the so-called American Century. The Cold War prompted a surge in investment in the space programme, computer technology, and science education.
The Sept. 11 attacks, which took place on a beautiful late-summer morning 20 years ago tomorrow, had the potential to leave their own legacy of recovery. Americans were more united in their grief and anger in the weeks following the attacks than they had been in years. President George W. Bush has an approval rating of more than 85%.
It’s not difficult to imagine Bush responding to September 11 with the kind of domestic mobilisation seen in previous wars. He could have rallied the country to end its reliance on Middle Eastern oil, which both financed radical American enemies and kept the US embroiled in the region. While attacking Al Qaeda militarily, Bush could have also called for massive investments in solar, wind, nuclear, and natural gas. It had the potential to be transformative for the economy, the climate, and Bush’s historical standing.
Bush took a different path, one that was ambitious in and of itself: the “freedom agenda.” He hoped that deposing the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq would inspire people all over the world to fight for democracy and to defeat autocracy. For a brief moment — the Arab Spring, which began in 2010, — his vision appeared to be coming true.
However, we now know that it did not. Bush and his administration botched Iraq’s postwar reconstruction. In Afghanistan, the United States turned down a Taliban surrender offer, and the Taliban went on to win the war. Autocrats continue to rule in Egypt and Syria.
Some wars have clearly left legacies of progress toward freedom, such as the anti-colonization movement and the flowering of European democracy after World War II. The post-9/11 wars, on the other hand, have not. In fact, the world has become less democratic in recent years.
Twenty years later, the September 11 attacks appear to be remembered as a double tragedy. There were the visceral horrors: The attacks that day killed nearly 3,000 people, and the wars that followed killed hundreds of thousands more. And there’s the nagging question: did the country manage to forge a better future in the aftermath of the trauma?
More on 9/11’s legacy
In a survey of books about the attacks and their aftermath, the Washington Post’s Carlos Lozada writes: “9/11 was a test.” The books of the last two decades demonstrate America’s failure.”
“Radical pessimism is a mistake,” writes David Ignatius in The Washington Post. “These two decades saw many American gaffes, but also many lessons learned.”
Jennifer Senior of The Atlantic writes about one family’s heartbreaking loss and struggle to move on in “Twenty Years Gone.”
“The fact that the United States went on to attack, and wreak even greater violence against innocent civilians around the world, was largely omitted from official narratives,” writes novelist Laila Lalami for Times Opinion.
“The twin towers remain because we saw them, moved in and out of their long shadows, and were fortunate enough to know them for a time.” This essay was written by Colson Whitehead shortly after the September 11th attacks. Many people return to it.
The World Trade Center site “still feels like an alien zone,” writes The New York Times’ architecture critic Michael Kimmelman. The rest of Lower Manhattan, on the other hand, has blossomed.
More than 1,100 victims’ remains have never been identified. Corey Kilgannon writes that New York City is still looking for DNA matches, a task that the chief medical examiner has called a “sacred obligation.”