Remembering September 11, 2001

World Trade Center Lights Scott Hudson / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

This post is also available in: Spanish

The 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington, DC were a defining moment in history that forever changed the United States and the world. As we commemorate the tragic day and reflect on its impact after 20 years, we share the following article written by Michael Shifter on October 8, 2001.

Strike to the Heart

The closest analogue was June 5, 1968. That was the day my dreams were shattered and the world changed. I was watching television. Bobby Kennedy, the senator from my native New York, had just declared victory in the California primary contest for the Democratic nomination for president, when he was shot and killed. Bobby was my political hero, an inspiring figure who embodied hope in a turbulent era. For days, I cried uncontrollably. I didn’t want to speak to anybody.  

On that day, what naturally came to mind — and made the sorrow that much more painful — was the shock, nearly five years before, when Bobby’s brother, President John F. Kennedy, had been assassinated in Dallas, Texas. I was only eight years old then. For an entire generation, the tragic moment was unimaginably devastating. Mary McGrory, now a columnist at the Washington Post said, “We will never laugh again.” Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who worked for President Kennedy and just recently retired as US Senator from New York (the same seat Bobby held), replied, “Mary, we will laugh again. But we will never be young again.”

For another generation, innocence was utterly lost on September 11, 2001. US ATTACKEDThe New York Times headline the next day said it all. Everyone, everywhere, was shaken and numbed by what happened. But I noticed especially that the young men and women, in their early 20s, who work with me at the Inter-American Dialogue (a policy center in Washington, DC) entered into a profound existential crisis. In the wider scheme of things, working every day on US Latin American policy seemed to them so inconsequential. What was the point of all this, they asked?  

Born after the Vietnam War ended, this generation (along with the rest of us) struggled to make sense of the remarkable loss of life on American soil – 6,000 dead. That is over 10 percent of the Americans who died during the entire Vietnam War, the national trauma that tore the United States apart for nearly a decade. Of the many comparisons and references made to put the September 11 events in proper perspective – the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the remarkably bloody US Civil War are those frequently invoked – Vietnam strikes me as the most poignant and dramatic.     

At the same time, no place in Washington is more sober and provides more comfort than the Vietnam Memorial, inaugurated 20 years ago. That is where I went the day after the attacks. Unlike other impressive monuments on the National Mall in Washington, this one invites introspection and deep reflection. It is thoroughly moving. Just a short distance from the Vietnam Memorial is the Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) Memorial, open a few years now. I’ve already visited a number of times, and after leaving the Vietnam Memorial I walked over there yet again. On the stones were carved such eloquent and simple words (“this generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny”) uttered by the president who led the United States through the Great Depression and World War II. 

It has often been remarked, with good reason, that political leadership and eloquence are in short supply today in the United States. But the crisis has summoned the best in the United States. Especially Rudy Giuliani and Colin Powell, the Mayor of New York and the Secretary of State, the sons, respectively, of Italian and Jamaican immigrants. Giuliani was extraordinary, and showed just the right blend of toughness and sheer humanity. As Hemingway would put it, “grace under pressure.” Not to mention the fact that he put his life at risk. Rarely has a public figure shown as much courage. Giuliani was aptly described as “Churchill in a Yankees cap.”  

It is hard to believe that when Colin Powell was notified of the attacks (during his visit to Lima for the Organization of American States meeting), he had been featured that week on the cover of Time, which reported that he was losing influence within the Bush administration. That now seems like ancient history. In fact, this crisis has put Powell — the consummate soldier and, increasingly, the consummate diplomat – clearly in charge of US foreign policy. Powell, articulate and eminently sensible, has prevailed over others in the administration who perhaps had wished the United States had reacted more quickly, and aggressively, to the attacks. In a crisis in which it is natural to try to identify “positive” effects, Powell’s ascendance is at the top of the list. 

President George Bush — who few have confused with Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, or Franklin Delano Roosevelt – surprised many who feared he might lack the patience and restraint to build an international coalition before applying military force. Yet, he has risen to the occasion — even speaking, a few days after the September 11 attack, with rare poetry and power. Bush, like the Congress and the press in the United States, have benefited from low expectations, in a welcome display of prudence.  (I am writing this as the anticipated bombing of Afghanistan has begun.) 

Ironies, of course, abound. The most striking is that the president even less favorably disposed to the role of government than Ronald Reagan has, due to such urgent circumstances, turned into an advocate of government, including spending levels that would have impressed FDR, even Keynes. In a flash, the heavy ideology that called for a limited role of the federal government was gone. A national crisis — with security foremost in people’s minds — changed all of that.

Of course, Bush, whose approval level passed 90 percent, rode a surge of patriotism not seen for many years in this country.  Flags were flying, and continue to fly, everywhere. On radio and television stations, “God Bless America” and the national anthem are frequently heard. For the most part, the patriotism has been benign, even salutary, occasionally showing some signs of sophistication.  

But on this question, it is useful to recall George Orwell’s insights on the distinction between patriotism and nationalism.  (Another “positive” effect of the crisis has been that Orwell’s keen observations on such subjects as pacifism and fascism, along with the use — and misuse — of language, have formed part of the public discussion.) In a 1945 essay, he wrote: “Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism…By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force upon other people. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.” This, of course, is the risk and concern — that healthy patriotism, will give way to a kind of nationalism that borders on jingoism, accompanied by a measure of intolerance. This, of course, is anything but healthy.  

In addition, more than three weeks after the attack, there were some hints that the refreshing maturity exhibited by US institutions in the immediate aftermath September 11 was beginning to erode. Some petty partisanship, mercifully absent for some time, came back to the political debate. Several firms in corporate America took advantage of the country’s patriotic mood with some shameless advertising. And even Giuliani, riding a wave of adulation, was tempted to make a power grab (albeit through legal means) that would have extended his term beyond the limit of January 1, 2002. In the end, he wisely pulled back.       

The September 11 attacks brought an outpouring of enormous solidarity and sympathy from many friends throughout Latin America. I hadn’t heard from some of them in several decades. Though the circumstances were horrible, it was nice to reconnect with old friends. The messages from Peruvian and Colombian friends – who, as many of them reminded me, are hardly strangers to insecurity and have lived (and are living) through such terrorism “en carne propia” – were particularly heartwarming.  

Living in Peru in the late 1980s and early 1990s also helped make me sensitive to the use of language and to the meaning of terms such as “terrorist.” I learned that the word is often invoked, or avoided, to serve one’s political purposes. Many of the debates here reminded me of the highly charged discussions during that period in Peru about how to best characterize Sendero Luminoso and MRTA. For example, is the campaign aimed at Bin Laden a “war” or “police action”? If the former, why is there such concern with bringing him to “justice”? The description of the terrorists (and it seems that if the term fits anywhere, it does so in this case) as “cowardly” also provoked some controversy. If only they had been more “cowardly” on September 11!! 

Even my familiarity with the dreadful phenomenon of “disappearances” in Peru, Argentina, Guatemala, Chile and Colombia did not adequately prepare me for the anguished expressions of hundreds of New Yorkers carrying photos of their “missing” loved ones and hoping that, by some miracle, they would be found alive. Of the many tragic images following September 11, those stick most in my mind.

 All of us have struggled to lift the depression and somber mood that has naturally accompanied this tragedy. With time, of course, life will presumably, if slowly, return to “normal.” 

Happily, the men and women in their early 20s at the Inter-American Dialogue appear to have found some meaning in working on US Latin American policy in Washington. They have started to enjoy life a bit. Even to laugh.  

But as hard as they try, they will never be young again.

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˙Michael Shifter