(I was going to wait until 9/11 itself to post this, but the emotions of this 20 year milestone are weighing on me too much and I have to release them.)
Those of us old enough to remember 9/11 all have our stories about when we first heard the news, but we don't talk enough about our emotions that day. When the actual enormity of the event sank in I was hit by the knowledge that as horrible as the death of this day would be, it would lead to much greater death and destruction in its aftermath. After walking around in shock it was that realization that caused me to break down and cry. It pains me to say I was right in ways I could not even imagine.
There were the wars of course, which dragged on for decades. There were also the drone strikes, "extraordinary rendition," wire-tapping, secret prisons, and torture. Twenty years later the US failed to defeat the Taliban. Instead it militarized its own police, emboldened to commit bloodshed in poor neighborhoods, especially if they were black or brown. Now the terrorists mostly come from within our own borders and had their preferred candidate in the White House for four years. Some of them, including a bunch of off-duty cops and military veterans, tried to overthrow the government this year.
Their rallying cry, "Make America Great Again," is rooted in the notion of an idealized past.
It was an effective slogan because Americans by and large no longer believe in the future. We are witnessing the consequences of climate change but are doing little to stop it. We let our bridges and roads crumble, block new buildings from our cities, and have endless fights over the smallest changes to school curricula. Our children are shot to death in their own classrooms with such regularity that there are ritualized reactions to it and no expectation that it will ever end. Even before COVID life expectancy went down because so many Americans were committing suicide and dying of alcoholism and opioid addiction. The vaccines made to combat COVID, a genuine marvel of modern technology, have been refused by over thirty percent of the population, allowing the disease to keep killing.
Our system is a gerontocracy. Our last two presidents were in their 70s, and so is the Speaker of the House. The leader of the movement to push back against the current economic system is even older than the president. University departments are full of tenured Boomers who refuse to retire while younger scholars languish in precarity. The aged rock stars of the 60s and 70s still tour and rock until they literally drop. Film and television audiences are fed a steady diet of sequels, reboots, and remakes. There are no young film stars anymore, just old ones who have not gone away despite their advanced age. Even plenty of original stuff, like Stranger Things, is still drenched in nostalgia for a bygone time.
9/11 feels like the day the future died. It was a shock to the system disproving America's invulnerability in the most flagrant and tragic way possible. The failed wars waged in the aftermath showed that the United States was in fact not some dominant hyper-power, but a crumbling empire inflicting greater wounds on itself than any hijackers could. It didn't even spawn a sense of civic-minded unity that could last more than a month or two. In the aftermath George W Bush told Americans just to keep shopping.
I feel like the last twenty years have been a never-ending nightmare of failures rooted in the preceding decades of neoliberal rot. Some of those failures, like the useless wars, have been easy to see. Others, like growing inequality and lowered quality and length of life, have been buried away from mainstream discussion. It's a strange thing that so few believe in this country's future but the majority that doesn't will never outwardly say so. In this country, so invested in its image of exceptionalism, one isn't allowed to admit certain things. So twenty years after 9/11, with great pain, I will. This country doesn't have a future, and most of you know that already. Living in a dying empire is no picnic.