It’s a week since we marked the anniversary. Nine years later, it continues to boggle my mind how much 9/11 changed our standards for everything.
Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I was studying abroad in Ghana when it happened. I heard the news in the middle of the day, not the morning, and I watched the towers fall on a small screen TV in the first-floor computer lab of the Legon Hall Annex A dormitories — multistory cement shells with infrequent running water — with a lot of Ghanaian students (obviously) and the type of American kids who would sign up to study abroad in Ghana (use your imagination, or extrapolate from what you know of me). Not the same atmosphere in which many in America became aware of the attacks.
Maybe it’s because I was 20 years old when it happened, and on the cusp of entering a sort of adult awareness.
Or maybe it’s because I had only been to New York twice in my life — once when I was born, and once when I was ten years old, where my most vivid memory is getting my Bulls cap (perched stylishly on my head a la BBD) snatched off my head by a thief on a bicycle.
Also, I didn’t lose anyone in the attacks, or know anyone (at the time) who did.
Whatever the reasons, I experienced the attacks differently from many in the United States. And probably because of that, the changes upon my return to the United States were nearly as shocking as the event of 9/11 itself. Recovering from a month of malaria and sinus infections, I stumbled through an LAX landscape stolen from a sci-fi movie, a place apparently under siege. I couldn’t get over the fact that there were Marines with automatic weapons patrolling the halls. I was astounded that I was reprimanded at security for not taking the snotty tissues out of my pocket at the metal detector, as I entered the domestic terminal to transfer to a flight to San Francisco.
In retrospect, I believe that the foreboding and longing I felt on that final flight home from LAX to SFO, looking out the window at receding banks of Pacific fog in December twilight, were not just the reentry culture shock of the young student returning from studying abroad in a place where life seemed a little more real.
It was also the creeping realization that the place I had left behind four months before no longer existed — not in the way that it had. This was a new America, and there was something monstrous about it. The full tragedy of 9/11 was not yet apparent, but something in the atmosphere foreshadowed.
And indeed, the tragedy multiplied — both materially and in more ephemeral ways. First it would be an unquestioned bombing campaign against Afghanistan. Then there would be the omnipresent consciousness of danger, promoted by government messages — exemplified with the utterly meaningless, color-coded “threat-level” system. Then, the vast expansion of government surveillance programs. Then the invasion — on completely trumped-up evidence — of Iraq, resulting in hundreds of thousands dead, trillions of dollars flushed down the toilet, an international reputation destroyed.
Now, we find ourselves here: in an America where news hours are spent airing conspiracy theories about cryptic Islamic influences in the minutiae of daily life — theories that, in their insidiousness and ignorance, would make proud the authors of medieval antisemitica. With Park51 and Koran burning episodes replacing matters of actual consequence in our national debate about the issues that led to 9/11, it seems like the descent into the vortex of fear and wrong reaction to that tragic day has reached a new velocity. We left rationality so far behind it’s hard to know where to start clawing our way back to a reasonable course.
Which brings me to the actual point of this post (talk about a delayed lead): Why is it so hard for our nation to get out of this post-9/11 stupor?
The answer is not just that we are intellectually paralyzed. We are materially paralyzed — the actions our country took in response to the attacks had deep and substantial effects on the way our economy and our government work, the way we make money and the way we relate, practically, to the world. See, for example, Fareed Zakaria’s succinct and convincing catalog of 9/11’s impact on the intelligence industry.
Here are some of the highlights. Since September 11, 2001, the U.S. government has created or reconfigured at least 263 organizations to tackle some aspect of the war on terror. The amount of money spent on intelligence has risen by 250 percent, to $75 billion (and that’s the public number, which is a gross underestimate). That’s more than the rest of the world spends put together. Thirty-three new building complexes have been built for intelligence bureaucracies alone, occupying 17 million square feet—the equivalent of 22 U.S. Capitols or three Pentagons. Five miles southeast of the White House, the largest government site in 50 years is being built—at a cost of $3.4 billion—to house the largest bureaucracy after the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs: the Department of Homeland Security, which has a workforce of 230,000 people.
This new system produces 50,000 reports a year—136 a day!—which of course means few ever get read.
Also, take a look at Foreign Policy’s photo essay, 9/11 Inc., to see the many ways we have allowed ourselves to become materially and psychologically invested in 9/11 — allowed ourselves to let it define us.
There is no easy exit from such a material commitment. For me, it calls to mind Eisenhower’s famous warning about the growth of a military industrial complex. It’s not an exact parallel, but the implications for extirpating ourselves from the narrative resonate. We’re pretty far gone, and the structures we’ve set up are self promoting, and there’s no obvious escape route.
So how do we get over this? For us American Eighties Babies, GWOT defined our youth — more directly for those who served in the armed forces and made the biggest sacrifices, but also, in many other ways, for everyone else. How do we keep it from defining the rest of our lives?