I’ll always remember Sept. 11 as something that happened in the evening. At the time I was living in a town in northern India, and I watched the towers fall on a TV someone had dragged into the street. Because I was so far away, I’ll never know the terror people in New York and Washington felt on that day, the fear that more attacks were coming, that the epic disaster movies so popular during the bored ’90s had come viciously to life.
But I’m pretty certain that amid all the apocalypticism of that time, most people felt confident in America’s endurance. Yes, Al Qaeda had pulled off something spectacular. The scale of it made Osama bin Laden’s threat to our country seem far greater than, in retrospect, it really was. Many people felt like a civilizational battle on par with World War II had commenced.
America’s horror and distress, however, were tinged with dark excitement. Plenty of influential people seemed thrilled to shed their post-Cold War ennui, to feel the nation charged with new purpose. They thought themselves cleareyed but were in fact devastatingly naïve.
The writer Christopher Hitchens, speaking in 2003, captured the spirit of the time. “Watching the towers fall in New York, with civilians incinerated on the planes and in the buildings,” he said, he felt something he didn’t grasp at first. “I am only slightly embarrassed to tell you that this was a feeling of exhilaration. Here we are then, I was thinking, in a war to the finish between everything I love and everything I hate. Fine. We will win and they will lose.”
We didn’t win. The danger jihadist terrorism posed to our country, while serious, was never truly existential; Al Qaeda fell apart shortly after its greatest triumph. Yet the damage Sept. 11 did to the United States was more profound than even many pessimists anticipated.
The attacks, and our response to them, catalyzed a period of decline that helped turn the United States into the debased, half-crazed fading power we are today. America launched a bad-faith global crusade to instill democracy in the Muslim world and ended up with our own democracy in tatters. [Continue reading…]