The primary lesson we should take from the events of Sept. 11, 2001, is to be wary of lessons we think we have learned from traumatic events. Trauma can undermine the clear thinking and calm deliberation big decisions require.
The trauma the nation felt then was amplified by the contrast between our experience of sudden vulnerability and a mood shaped by a long period of relative peace and nearly a decade of roaring prosperity.
Our nation had been on a high of national self-confidence after the collapse of the Soviet Union encouraged talk of a “unipolar world” in which the United States confronted no serious competitors.
And the actual suffering was excruciating. We still mourn the thousands killed at the World Trade Center, at the Pentagon and on Flight 93 when brave passengers, at the cost of their lives, overcame their hijackers to stop another targeted crash. We remember the firefighters, police officers and other first responders who died or suffered grievous, lasting health problems to save others.
Briefly, we were united as a nation. For some time, partisan politics very nearly disappeared.
Among Democrats, President George W. Bush’s approval rating was just 27% in a Gallup survey taken Sept. 7-10, 2001; in less than a week, it soared to 78%. It was even higher among independents and Republicans.
But the unity would not last. If the decision to attack the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan was broadly popular, the use of 9/11 to justify the invasion of Iraq was not. Americans rallied around the flag when the war in Iraq started, but they had grave doubts going in, and those mushroomed as the war dragged on.
The way Bush administration officials made the case for intervening in Iraq sowed seeds of division that blossomed into today’s rancid politics.
They painted utterly unrealistic portraits of what the war would achieve (“we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators,” Vice President Dick Cheney famously said), and savaged critics in partisan terms. When Bush announced the invasion on March 19, 2003, a sidebar report in the next day’s Washington Post was headlined: “GOP to Hammer Democratic War Critics.”
The years that followed were jarring in other ways. De-industrialization savaged many once-vibrant communities, especially in the Midwest. Economic inequality grew. The financial collapse of 2008 greatly aggravated the damage. The economy recovered, but slowly.
The pre-9/11 sense of American invincibility and that too-brief interlude after the onslaught when it felt like we were all in this together gave way to bitterness, division and new doubts about the country’s capacities.
This is why we should not be surprised by a Post-ABC News poll this week that found 46% of Americans say that the events of Sept. 11 changed the country for the worse while only 33% said they changed it for the better.
The contrast with responses to the same question in September 2002 could hardly be starker. Back then, 55% said the country had changed for the better, only 27% for the worse. We had not gone to Iraq yet, and we were still basking in the selflessness of our 9/11 heroes.
There is, I think, wisdom in the country’s intuitions, then and now. As we reach a milestone anniversary of the attacks, we should never forget those whose lives were lost. And if there is one aspect of the spirit of 9/11 that should remain with us, it is the devotion to selfless service that inspired our country two decades ago and remains a model for what patriotism should look like.
But in many other ways, we need to move beyond 9/11 — beyond the hubris that made us think we could remake the world by force, beyond the ever-present temptation to use a catastrophe to justify projects already in mind before disaster struck.
What we did right after 9/11 was inspired not by grandiose plans but by a painstaking response to more ordinary failures: the failure to understand and act upon available intelligence, the lack of cooperation among agencies charged with keeping us safe, the inability to grasp how much damage could be inflicted by enemies far less powerful than us. Our systems are better for acknowledging these shortcomings, and our imaginations are more alive to the threats.
What we don’t need and shouldn’t want are bombastic declarations of American purpose on Sept. 11, 2021. Far better would be sober remembrances of the heroes and the fallen; realistic assessments of what it will take to protect our people; and a pledge not to remain mired in the feelings, impulses and mistakes that followed a tragic moment. All this, and prayers that we might never again confront a misfortune of this sort.