People remember the days following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as a time of unity.

Twenty years ago, President George W. Bush rallied a shaken America to “rid the world of evil,” a mission with no clear end. Doug Mills/Associated Press, File 

And it largely was. Americans were unified in their grief and horror at the human loss. In their pride in the heroism of that day. In their fear and sudden vulnerability.

Americans by mid-September of that year favored U.S. action in Afghanistan by a more than 3-to-1 margin. By April 2003, similar numbers agreed that the U.S. should invade Iraq.

A minority of Americans, however, largely ignored at the time, saw that the real danger came not from foreign terrorists but in our response to them – in our own need to find something to do with the new fear most Americans felt.

Twenty years later, we should admit they were right. Al-Qaida was never an existential threat. As awful as the attacks were, they could not by themselves lead us to question and violate our founding principles, to strike out with indiscriminate brutality, to waste resources abroad, and ultimately to divide us as few times before.

They needed our help. To hurt us, the attacks had to bring out our worst selves.

And they did. Before the rubble at ground zero had even stopped smoking, the U.S. was going to war, not only to stop al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden but also to “rid the world of evil,” as President George W. Bush said at the time – a broad mission with no clear end or specific objective.

Less than two years later, the Bush administration turned its attention to Iraq, using lies to justify a war with no connection to 9/11. Military personnel on the ground in Afghanistan were left with few resources and less sense of direction or purpose, though they were still left there.

They’d remain there until earlier this year, even as multiple administrations, we’d later find out, realized the war was unwinnable.

The years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan changed the military. Thousands of American service members were killed or wounded, of course. But warfare changed, too, as it was waged largely out of the view of the U.S. public, with special forces raids and drone strikes, with civilians often caught in the middle.

The death and destruction around civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in the many other countries our fight against evil has brought us, has been immense. The lawless, inhumane and ineffective torture and detention program made little distinction between friend and foe, too. Our country plunged into a moral abyss, too arrogant or blinkered to see our mistakes.

We are a country that launched a worldwide, ongoing war on terrorism following one attack two decades ago. Yet we can’t imagine for one moment how our own endless attacks on foreign lands would be seen by others, or that our intervention may not be appreciated.

Meanwhile, at home, post-9/11 fear allowed for the creation of a new security state supported by illegal mass surveillance. Particularly targeted were mosques and other Muslim religious institutions, as well as anti-war protesters.

Immigrants, too, became a bigger target. After the attacks, immigration and border enforcement were placed in the new Department of Homeland Security. To many Americans, immigrants were seen as a security threat rather than an affirmation of our country’s promise.

The billions of dollars in federal money and equipment sent to law enforcement agencies changed them, too, as police forces of all sizes became militarized.

They say they were doing so to meet a new threat. But they were really responding to fear, just as this country has so often since 9/11.

It’s fear that has led to an enormous rise in gun ownership, and in gun violence.

It’s fear that has led the U.S. to focus so much on foreign terror when homegrown extremists cause more death and destruction.

It’s fear that has led Americans to embrace wild conspiracy theories that attempt to explain the turbulent, changing country of the last two decades.

It’s fear of that change, and the exploitation of that fear, that is dividing us now.

And it’s that division that has allowed a preventable disease to become so politicized that people are refusing to take a safe, effective medicine – or even to do so little as wear a mask for the health of someone else.

As a result, more than 650,000 Americans have died of COVID, a 9/11 every three days for the last 18 months.

There was unity immediately after 9/11. But in the 20 years since, we have been stuck in a cycle driven by fear.

That was the danger of the terrorist attacks, not that they would destroy us but that they would push us to turn against each other.

In one way or another, we’ve let it work.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.