Twenty years ago, broadcast on television screens across the globe, people watched as a man fell from the sky. One of many who jumped, he free fell from the north tower of the World Trade Center, preferring to face an unimaginable demise rather than suffocate in a fiery tomb of ash and rubble. 2,600 people died on Sep. 11, 2001, murdered by the actions of terrorists with a callous disregard for human life.
Two decades have passed, and this year – viewed on our laptops, phones, and Twitter feeds this time – we saw such a travesty occur once again. Only now, it was Afghan men falling down to Earth, having clung to American planes for dear life until they flung back, left in a state of freefall as they crashed onto the tarmac of Kabul airport.
Desperation, fear, and uncertainty connect these two events, serving as tragic bookends to the war on terror, a non-partisan, multi-generational geyser of human misery, that thousands of American men and women – and millions more Iraqi and Afghan civilians – were thrown into, swallowing them whole and gushing out only blood and rubble in return.
People’s sons, daughters, husbands, wives and siblings died on 9/11. We will never forget the atrocities committed, with thousands of deaths rationalized through pure terror. Former President George W. Bush spoke at the Flight 93 memorial service, tearfully recalling “I saw millions of people instinctively grab for a neighbor's hand and rally to the cause of one another.”
Almost immediately, Bush and his regime exploited the post-9/11 resurgence with civic pride, then transforming patriotic fervor into a vicious jingoism – a violent, aggressive form of nationalism – which the administration channeled to drum up support for invading Iraq.
They utilized shoddy data, plied analysts with promises of cash in hopes of convincing them to spout administration talking points, and lied to the United Nations about coming terror threats, all the while gloomily imagining “another 9/11,” which they would claim an inevitable event if the American people didn’t follow their lead unquestioningly.
Flags in hand, we followed them, marching toward Iraq, a glorified smash and grab operation that claimed 7.000 U.S service members lives and at the lowest estimate, between 184,000 and 207,000 Iraqi civilians. Afghanistan has been much the same, and thanks to investigative reporting from the Washington Post, we now know that every successive president since Bush knew the occupation was an unwinnable mess. But they lied, believing that as long as the memory of the twin towers loomed large over American culture, they would get away with it.
Our government exploited these unfortunate souls, digging up their corpses and dragging them across column inches and campaign trails. Victims of terror were used to justify terror: violence perpetrated by drones and hidden torture camps, its participants lauded as heroes and given book deals and speaking engagements, its contractors and weapons manufacturers then padding their pockets in the fallout.
We cannot know how those who were murdered that fateful day would have felt about Iraq, Afghanistan, or the endless fight against terrorism globally. All we can do is look at the chain of events leading from then to now, and hang our heads in shame. Bush was correct in his assessment of how united Americans felt after 9/11. The old boundaries seemed to melt away, made irrelevant by a greater threat, and once adversarial neighbors, separated by innumerous socio-political divisions, saw one another for what they actually were: fellow Americans, and, in a greater sense, fellow members of the human race.
Many have said that 9/11 was when the 21st century truly began, and that every major national or global event since then can be traced back to it. The rise in xenophobia and racism, erosion of civil liberties, expansion of the military industrial complex, all these shapeless creatures haunting the modern world, were birthed from the trade center’s ashes. Yet, for a brief, fleeting moment, we saw the people we could have been, a vision of the world we could have made. That feeling should not be forgotten but instead recaptured, salvageable hope in the wake of our once again upturned world.