Nearly two decades after 9/11, America has nation-defining issues to resolve

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The day of Sept. 11, 2001 — that longest of days for many Americans, especially responders — ended for me in the early hours of Sept. 12 on board the helicopter that would return me to State Police Headquarters in West Trenton, N.J., from Liberty State Park, across the Hudson from lower Manhattan. As the pilot banked over the neighborhood before turning west, I looked down on a 40-story inferno raging where the World Trade Center had stood; thousands of people were missing or dead, the living potentially trapped in the white-hot flames and melting debris.  

Many of the wounded had been ferried across the river by the New Jersey State Police. We were bracing for further attacks at unknown locations, by parties unknown at that point. I didn’t think it was possible to feel more unsettled, more in doubt, more anxious about our future, than I felt that night.  

Yet sometimes I do now. Not because our responses to the 9/11 attacks have been ineffective; indeed, many of the unanswered questions from that night — Who did this? How did they do it? Will there be a second wave? Can we prevent future attacks? — have been answered. But we have proven unable to address the most critical challenge identified by the 9/11 Commission: the challenge to “engage the struggle of ideas.” The United States, the commission concluded, “should offer an example of moral leadership in the world, committed to treat people humanely, abide by the rule of law, and be generous.”

By any measure, we have failed abysmally to meet this challenge.  

We appear to have abdicated the “position of moral leadership” we occupied after the fall of the Soviet Union, and then again after 9/11. We are easily portrayed and widely viewed not as moral leaders but as hypocrites whose actions betray our own ideals, who value liberty and prosperity for ourselves alone, and whose cultural expressions of freedom amount to little more than garish displays of decadence with little or no regard to the public good. American freedom is being discredited as an ideal throughout the world by nations seeking to justify their own repressive conduct; increasingly, they cite as support our self-absorbed culture and our feckless politics. 

Where the battle of ideas is concerned, we appear a nation adrift, if not utterly lost. It never has been more important that we “defend our ideals abroad” — but before we do that we must rediscover them at home.  

As the 9/11 Commission put it, “If the United States does not act aggressively to define itself … the extremists will gladly do the job for us.”    

Here we are, 19 years after 9/11, and extremists indeed are defining us: not Islamist extremists, and not even the agents of Russia, China, North Korea and Iran. Instead, we are being defined by extremists at home. We are polarized on nearly every conceivable issue, with extremists staking out positions that can prevail only by being forced on those who disagree. Disputes are clashes of absolutes.  

For a generation now, we have been living the politics of the excluded middle, and if we don’t figure out how to end it, the future of the American experiment in self-governance is in doubt.  It’s hard to imagine a more threatening prospect than the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and farmland in Shanksville, Pa., in flames. But the current threat to democracy is more serious because it arose internally and has become systemic. 

The generation and perpetuation of crisis is structurally driven, embedded in the centrifugal economics of how information is transmitted. Fortunes are being made by driving us apart. To watch Fox News, CNN and MSNBC is not merely to watch differing coverage of the same events, but increasingly to watch coverage of two separate nations.  

The algorithms that drive profits for social media companies do so, moreover, by segmenting markets, reinforcing consumer predilections. Applied to the marketing of home, health and beauty products, this approach makes perfect sense; applied to the dissemination of political views, it is proving to be catastrophic for the health of our republic, driving people into cul de sacs of their own prejudices, making constructive conversation impossible. 

America has nation-defining issues to resolve. The relationship between police and community must be transformed. A strategic approach to pandemics must be developed. The reality of climate change must be addressed. None of these issues will be resolved, however, until we address the underlying structure whose financial well-being depends on the continuity of discord.

Years ago, recognizing the potential one-sidedness of opinions broadcast over emerging forms of electronic transmission (i.e., radio and television), Congress provided for and the Federal Communications Commission adopted a so-called “rule of fairness,” requiring broadcast licensees to set aside time to discuss public issues and to present multiple points of view. That rule is antiquated; it was phased out when the plethora of cable television outlets and radio frequencies made the threat of one-sidedness seem diminished.

But the harm it sought to prevent is now overwhelming us and should cause us to reexamine fairness in this new context. If computer engineers can devise algorithms that reinforce predilections, it follows that they can devise algorithms that direct us to contrasting views. Why not require an algorithm of fairness?     

Time has given the lie to the idea that expanding the number of broadcast outlets would result in an expansion of the number of viewpoints to which subscribers would be exposed. In fact, the opposite has occurred. The poverty of public discourse — the politics of the excluded middle — is the proof.

That night 19 years ago was unsettling, anxiety-producing and frightening, but I had no doubts about who we were as a country. Our moment today is more alarming, because the problem is not outside attacking us, but within ourselves and the information-for-profit system that is tearing us apart.

John Farmer Jr. is director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. He is a former assistant U.S. attorney, counsel to the governor of New Jersey, New Jersey attorney general, senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission, dean of Rutgers Law School, and executive vice president and general counsel of Rutgers University.

Tags 9/11 attacks 9/11 Commission civil unrest divisive rhetoric partisan politics

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