The tragedy of 9/11 — an inflection point in American history

The tragedy of 9/11 — an inflection point in American history
© Getty Images

It was a beautiful clear late summer day in New York. I took my morning jog in Central Park and noticed a low-flying plane lazily headed south above the reservoir. I was planning to be late for work that morning. I wanted to vote for Michael BloombergMichael BloombergWithout drastic changes, Democrats are on track to lose big in 2022 Bidens, former presidents mark 9/11 anniversary The tragedy of 9/11 — an inflection point in American history MORE in the mayoral primary, and the polls opened at nine. 

At 8:46 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, Mohamed Atta and his team of four hijackers, traveling at a speed of 490 miles an hour, flew American Airlines Flight 11 into my law office on the 54th floor of One World Trade Center. Luckily, I wasn’t there, but the office was totally destroyed. Two hundred of my colleagues walked the stairs to safety that morning with about 10 minutes to spare. Our receptionist paused for breath on the 42nd floor and sat on a landing. She perished with the building, along with almost 3,000 innocent souls who had gone to their posts early. 

No loss occurring that day could have been more grievous than the senseless and horrific loss of innocent human life, next to which the ashes of my office and its contents appear trivial. But not so trivial to me, I had stored there a mountain of records and memorabilia, photographs, trial transcript, diaries and letters from judges and public officials that recorded significant aspects of my 34 years of professional life.

ADVERTISEMENT

The dead had been tragically robbed of their future; I was only robbed of the papers that reflected my past. 

As we huddled in front of the television screen, my wife said to me that I wouldn’t get over the event so quickly. Perhaps I never did. I survived 9/11, but I wonder whether the country did. Consider the scars inflicted over the past 20 years.

Traumatic events were no stranger to the experience of my generation. We had witnessed, among other things, the assassination of a president, two wars, three military “interventions” as well as the resignation of a president in the face of certain impeachment.

The influence of these events was of course profound. But 9/11 has transformed us, hovered over us for two decades to remind us how fragile has become our democracy, how divided we are and how much we are in danger of autocratic rule.

With broad support in Congress, and in the nation, we sent troops to war-torn Afghanistan, with the objective of evicting the al Qaeda terrorists responsible for 9/11 and the fundamentalist Taliban, which had harbored them. We succeeded in our mission and should have declared victory and gone home.

But we stayed, in the vain hope that we could build something that Afghanistan had never had, a democratic nation. The idea was that democratic nations do not tolerate terrorists. We also stayed to ensure that the terrorist-nurturing Taliban would not return to the country. We said that if we withdrew, they would come back from their nests in bordering Pakistan. We were right. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Afghanistan was America’s longest war. The British were there for three years in the 1800s and withdrew after the worst military disaster of the 19th century. The Russians sent in 100,000 troops in 1980 in an effort to take over the country as part of an expansionist Cold War strategy.

The Russians were stuck in a quagmire. After receiving little support from the Afghan army, and having sustained nearly 15,000 casualties, and another 35,000 wounded, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev decided to throw in the towel. He staged a ceremonious withdrawal in 1989, sugar-coating a complete defeat.

So how did 9/11 transform America? How is it, as Yogi Berra said, that “the future ain’t what it used to be”? In 1992, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama published his widely read book "The End of History and the Last Man.” There, he argued that with the end of the Cold War in 1991, the world would inexorably move away from authoritarian regimes and towards a westernized liberal democracy. He mused that with economic and political reforms in China, that country would also join the parade. However right he was, 9/11 proved to be the game changer that undercut his conclusions.

Today, we see a post-Tiananmen Square China increasingly authoritarian, dangerously nationalistic and likely to remain so as its strongman premier, Xi Jinping, contemplates a third term without limitation. Meanwhile, Chinese GDP under state owned capitalism has risen roughly 12-fold, from $1.3 trillion to $15 trillion, in just 20 years. China hungers for the natural treasures of neighboring Afghanistan. Afghanistan is rich in rare-earth minerals and has a poppy crop sufficient to opiate the world.

Identity politics or nativism has displaced democratic values in western countries. Terrorism is a cousin of this nativism. Like nativism, it is at odds with fundamental systems of societal organizations. The difference is that it operates malignantly.

Resurgent nationalistic regimes in Turkey, Hungary and Poland, and the Brexit campaign in England, are all features of nativism — a rejection of people who are not like me. 

At home, critical race theory, woke attitudes on campus, the election of Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump takes shot at new GOP candidate in Ohio over Cleveland nickname GOP political operatives indicted over illegal campaign contribution from Russian national in 2016 On The Money — Dems dare GOP to vote for shutdown, default MORE and the events of Jan. 6 all grow out of nativism. The fragile American experiment finds itself deeply challenged as it is divided politically, with sharp partisan differences enveloping its government, its judiciary, its media and its people in seemingly irreconcilable differences.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, we saw a country virtually united in support of boots on the ground in Afghanistan to extirpate the terrorists; today, however, we see sharp differences between those in favor of sensible foreign policies that include increased consultation with our allies and those favoring an isolationist “America First” (meaning America alone) approach.

There is further evidence of dissatisfaction with the global liberal order: China's Xi and Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinPutin's party wins big majority in Russian parliamentary elections Putin's party expected to keep control of lower house amid fraud complaints Clinton lawyer's indictment reveals 'bag of tricks' MORE challenge us abroad. In our nation today, we have deep divisions on the #MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter and, still, gay marriage; between those who want fair and reasonable immigration policies and those who want to build walls. There are those of us who seek to accomplish progress and change, and those who stubbornly seek to block it. And then there are those of us who think these differences don’t matter very much.

We entered Afghanistan to degrade al Qaeda and weaken terror. Now the face of terror has morphed like "Whac-a-mole" from al Qaeda to ISIS to ISIS-K. You can’t keep a good terrorist down, and we are left for our defense with retaliatory drones that will not prevent a suicide bombing here or an explosive-laden truck there from doing the terrorists’ wicked will.

Drones are not the total answer either. Sept. 11 doubtless spurred the development and expanded use of high-tech weaponry. But everyone wants to have the latest model, and the Iranians, the Saudis and even the Houthis have drones in their arsenals. It won’t be long before the Pakistanis and ISIS have drones as well.

The Taliban victory is not so much a victory for Islamic fundamentalism as a triumph for Afghan nationalism. We now leave to the Taliban the problem of running a country rent with tribal divisions and bordering on economic collapse. Nation-building under American aegis was a misconceived idea from the get-go. The fantasy was that the installation of democracies would lead to a crackdown on terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq. That was not going to happen. 

We failed.

While there were earlier indications, the events of 9/11 have resulted in the secular decline of American influence on the world stage, and events such as our chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan have exposed our weakened position. Meanwhile, the influence of Russia and China has grown.

America hates to lose. And like the British and Soviets, we lost the war in Afghanistan not with a bang but with a whimpering clumsy exit. We leave with some 6,800 dead, including at least 2,500 servicemen and women, $2 trillion down the drain and a country ruled by fundamentalist warlords. We re-enter the world mainstream in the face of massive distrust in our word, contempt for our ineptitude and suspicion of our motives.

The ghost of 9/11 hovers over us, whether the cause or the effect of our discontents. It was then that our world stood still. Twenty years later, we honor our dead and revisit our memories. We need to reflect carefully on the unfortunate history of the past two decades, and hopefully proceed with audacity and wisdom to confront our challenges as a nation. 

James D. Zirin is a columnist, lawyer and author. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.