One might imagine that a major milestone in post-9/11 America would feel more momentous than this: somber messaging on social media that feels mostly forced, the tepid commemorative ceremonies that I’m sure are taking place all across the country today in various forms, depending on how seriously any given community takes the threat of COVID-19. Twenty years on, I guess this is all the enthusiasm that we, collectively, are capable of mustering. As if we’re a dysfunctional family engaging in some yearly family tradition, not because we want to, but because we know it’s important to that one family member who wants so desperately to keep us all together. However inauthentic and pathetic it may feel, we participate in this collective ritual because, for some reason, we feel obliged to placate that one naïve sibling.
What purpose is commemorating 9/11 supposed to serve anyway? If I had to guess, I would say that it has to do with two major things: honoring the dead and reminding ourselves of the importance of national unity. That’s why nations have days of remembrance in the first place. Coming together around events like this, tragic or otherwise, is an important part of building and preserving a national character.
But given the current state of our nation, it’s almost impossible to think that there’s anything that could give us all a sense of togetherness. Twenty years later, memorializing 9/11 feels more like mourning the loss of a national spirit that no longer exists—and that, to many, no longer seems desirable.
We no longer have the capacity to properly honor our dead. Or, insofar as we do, we certainly don’t do so as “fellow Americans” the way we once might have done. That sense of unity is now, like 9/11 itself, a thing of the past. We’re a broken country.
This country wasn’t as fatally broken when the towers went down. Don’t get me wrong—our military response to what happened that day was painfully flawed. No, with the exception of our immediate collective expression of grief (which really was a beautiful thing to see), most of what came after 9/11 was downright horrid. More brutally evil, in fact, than what actually happened on September 11th. But America’s post-9/11 response did at least follow a pattern familiar to all who have had to bear witness to this country’s messy and often dark history: we were attacked, and we swore to come together to avenge those we lost. Much like what happened after a German torpedo killed hundreds of American tourists aboard the Lusitania, or after Japanese planes killed thousands of American service members, we identified a common enemy and turned our energy towards the eradication of that threat. After the towers fell, we demonstrated a similar capacity to act against external enemies, and we showed a sense of sacrifice in order to defeat that enemy. We found unity in a militant barbarism directed at a common foe.
When the pandemic first came to the United States, I remember that a lot of my friends and family members imagined that we would once again find that same kind of unity. It felt good to think about such a possibility given how divided we’d been for such a long time. Of course, that unity never really materialized. What was missing, I guess, was that common enemy, that feeling that our problems could be solved if we simply “went to war” against an external enemy, the same way human societies have done for millennia. Our national leaders even attempted to characterize our struggle against the virus’ spread as being, in a sense, a “war.” What a ridiculous notion. A virus is not an agentic actor against which one can wage war. A virus is a freak act of nature; it doesn’t know why it exists; it doesn’t know why it’s killing us; it just does. Because it acts without a conscience, it’s not really our enemy at all.
And so, we once again had to face the reality of our current situation. Here, today, in the United States, there seems to be no greater enemy out there than other Americans. Does anyone honestly still think that “Islamic” terror is a threat that we need to take as seriously as we once did? Would anyone really be willing to go to war over it? Maybe someone who just woke up from a coma that began in late 2001. For the rest of us, though, that’s simply not the reality we live in anymore. Now, we feel more endangered by each other than anything else.
The manner in which we feel threatened by one another depends very much on one’s vantage point. For me, my greatest existential threats currently come from unvaccinated Americans, or strangers who approach me without a mask, or people who support policies that destroy life on Earth, or unhinged men with guns who hate the left with every fiber of their being. I hardly recognize these people as Americans, because I see in them a total lack of willingness to sacrifice any amount of personal comfort for the good of humanity as a whole, their warped vision of “freedom” being complete anathema to the values held by those who built this country and anyone who has striven to make it a better and more just place.
Yet it’s this group of Americans who commemorate 9/11 with greater enthusiasm than anyone else. I suppose they prize these empty patriotic gestures because it allows them to feel like they’re the “real Americans” without needing to do anything to actually safeguard the lives and wellbeing of their fellow countrymen. I’m sure it is also important on a psychological level that they appear to care about the senseless loss of thousands of lives that occurred on that day because it allows them to ignore the fact that, with the pandemic still raging, their choices contribute to thousands of unnecessary deaths every day.
I’m just sorry that so many good Americans have had to put everything on the line to protect others while being obstructed by a radicalized right that believes that a perverse notion of individual freedom is more important than saving as many lives as possible. On this day, I honor the hardships endured by those good Americans, I mourn the tragic loss of all those people who have died for no reason—both in the here and now and on that fateful day 20 years ago, I yearn for an idea of what this country could be, and I celebrate the people who have the will to fight to make that America a reality.