And soon now we shall go out of the house and go into the convulsion of the world, out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time.
— Robert Penn Warren, “All the King’s Men”
Every one of us can close our eyes and go back to that day. The images will be there, projected on the backs of our eyelids in vivid color. The uncertainty after the initial explosion, the jarring realization after the second, the paper raining on the city from the gashes in the buildings followed by the bodies raining from the windows when they chose falling over fire. Finally, the collapse, the fury of dust and ash boiling through the city, people painted white with the bonemeal of co-workers and undone concrete as they ran, and ran, and ran.
In the days to follow we were confronted with the faces of those who charged in when everyone else was running out, trying to save as many as they could. In the close-knit firefighter neighborhoods of Rockaway, there was keening from behind closed doors in anticipation of the funeral bell services to come. Blue skies became a menacing thing, airplanes in flight an active threat. Most of us were not in those doomstruck buildings, not on the streets of New York when it happened, not in the Pentagon or in a Pennsylvania field, but in a great many ways we were all running for our lives that day. We are still running all these years later, and the ashes are still in our hair.
We are still running because September 11 never ended. To the contrary, it grew, expanded, metastasized and ultimately subsumed this nation. We are a wildly different place, and a wildly different people than we were fifteen years ago. We are barefoot at the airport talking on tapped phones with the latest war dispatches garbling from the television. Down in the basement, a pile of plastic sheeting and duct tape lays in the corner under a shroud of cobwebs.
We accept these things after a decade and a half of taming and training. The cops look like soldiers now, the neighborhoods they patrol no longer areas to protect and serve but hostile territories to be conquered, and this is supposed to be normal. Police in military gear wreak havoc in Ferguson and elsewhere. Citizens become enemy combatants to be shot down or choked out because when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. September 11 gave us that, thanks to the wars.
The dominoes began falling early. “We have to counteract the shockwave of the evildoer,” said George W. Bush less than a month after the attack, “by having individual rate cuts accelerated and by thinking about tax rebates.” There was the invasion of Afghanistan, which pivoted almost immediately into an invasion of Iraq that has proven to be the single greatest foreign policy blunder in American history, “Mission Accomplished” notwithstanding. Well, “blunder” may be too strong a word; after all, George and his friends made a mint off the years of war that followed. Thus, Mr. Bush fulfilled his destiny.
When Paul Bremer disbanded the Iraqi Army because they were Sunni Hussein loyalists, ISIS was born. These were not teenagers throwing rocks in the streets. The Iraqi Army was battle-tested from the long conflict with the US, and some within the ranks had even seen action in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. They know tactics and they know strategy, and when Bush’s war in Iraq created a massive refugee crisis that upended Syria, they found fertile ground in which to grow. In truth, however, ISIS was born on that perfect Tuesday morning to the scream of airplane engines and the smell of scorched blood.
September 11 gave us the horror and shame of Abu Ghraib as well as the disgrace of Guantánamo Bay. It gave us the concept of the Unitary Executive through which the president wields unlimited power in defiance of constitutional law. The PATRIOT Act exploded the surveillance dam and flooded the nation with watching eyes and ears. The trillions spent on the wars combined with Bush’s early tax cuts for rich people turned the economic downturn into almost an extinction-level event. Convenient terror alerts became a nimble way to control the national conversation. We had to watch what we say, after all. Meanwhile, the corporate “news” media lapped it up like dogs. War footage makes for great ratings.
After September 11 we somehow became a nation that needed a week to get water to the Superdome in New Orleans to help the survivors after Hurricane Katrina. This was institutional racism, but it was also more: we became a nation of blunderers after that Tuesday. We managed to murder a fair swath of the Gulf of Mexico when the Deepwater Horizon blew out. The best we could do on health care reform was to deliver the whole thing to the insurance industry. Congress contemplated new and novel ways to deny people the vote while forcing transvaginal ultrasounds on women seeking legal abortions. People saw Jesus in the red pulp of sliced tomatoes. It is all of a piece.
Oh, and we got the absurd presidential election of 2016 featuring a woman who voted for both the PATRIOT Act and the Iraq War Resolution, and a man whose racism, sexism, rank ignorance and flat-out fearmongering would be as clownish as his bright orange mien were it not so unutterably dangerous. When a nation bends its knee to fear, allows itself to be robbed, lied to and spied upon with no consequences in the offing for the perpetrators, Hillary v. Donald is pretty much the unavoidable byproduct of that rank stew.
The falling dominoes of September 11, more than anything, have left us a nation entombed in shadow and gloom. The horizon holds no hope, but is to be feared, for The Enemy may be huddled there just out of sight. Fifteen years and a day ago, we were a profoundly different people, until the following dawn when that horizon birthed us for the worse. It has not ended. It may never end. It is the clenched fist in our chest.
We greeted the 21st century with great anticipation. One year, nine months and eleven days into that new century, that anticipation exploded in sorrow and dread. Fifteen years later, the pall of poison smoke from that day still hangs low over us all. The great mission for the remainder of this century is plain: We must get out from under the control mechanism September 11 has become. We must stop the dominoes from falling. Doing so will require a foray into our deepest selves, a confrontation with what we have allowed to happen. It will not be easy, for there are some who enjoy being afraid and have a need to be told what to do, and they will fight to keep matters as they stand. There is also the monstrous profit motive to overcome. There will be pain, but pain always walks hand in hand with healing.
This is our mission in the years to come. It must be done. The alternative is dissolution and despair.
So let us begin.