9/11 and the End of History
Twenty years ago 3,000 people were murdered in a premediated act of cold-blooded evil that even now is hard to comprehend. I was 7. My 9/11 story is unremarkable when compared to millions of others. But it is a day I remember more clearly than any other from my early childhood. I was in 2nd grade. I remember the look on my teacher’s face when another teacher told her. I remember her shock and then her attempt to remain calm. I remember my classmates slowly being picked up, one by one, until only three of us remained. I remember naively thinking they had all coincidentally scheduled doctors’ appointments that day. I remember going to the pickup line and noticing that every other class in first and second grade only had two or three kids left. I remember thinking something might be wrong. In the days that followed, I remember the church being packed on Sunday like it was Christmas or Easter. I remember waiting for a pizza at my local pizzeria watching the pizza boy cry, staring at the news from New York on the TV. I remember the ceaseless prayers. I remember the endless American Flags. I remember sitting in bed, late one night, trying to imagine what it would take to make me want to do what they had done. I remember the feeling of innocence slowly slipping away.
“The End of History”, Francis Fukuyama’s now near comical 1992 magnus opus, declared that the Fall of Soviet Union signified the “universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” We laugh at such an assertion in our TechCrunch, pandemic induced, fake-news dystopia of 2021, but no book better encapsulates the extraordinary decade that was the 1990s. Only Edwardian England, prior to World War I, can compare to the blissful and lavish largesse Americans enjoyed in this decade of unprecedented Pax Americana.
The last decade had ended with an image of Reagan, Bush, and Gorbachev standing at the Statue of Liberty gazing towards two hulking Towers reaching for the heavens, embodying the endless possibilities of a better future. And then in the 90s the Evil Empire was gone. The Berlin Wall had fallen. So too had the Iron Curtain. Russia would have democratic elections. Ukraine voluntarily gave away its nuclear weapons to Russia. Germany was unified again. Apartheid had ended. Nelson Mandela was President of South Africa. Saddam Hussein’s army, the third largest in the world, had been vanquished by American might in 72 hours. NAFTA would bring unbridled economic prosperity. Saving Private Ryan was the perfect swansong for our Greatest Generation. Presidential scandals consisted of stained blue dresses. China was modernizing finally. The internet and the personal computer would change the world. Nothing could go wrong.
Sure, there were small bumps along the way, possible warnings of future problems abroad: Mogadishu, Bosnia, the Embassy Bombings, the Asian financial crisis, and the Taiwan Crisis.
Perhaps more critically, there were flashes at home of what the future might entail in the next century in America — subtle hints that there were still problems that needed solving: Rodney King, the first World Trade Center bombing, OJ, Waco, Timothy McVeigh, the Atlanta Olympics bombing, the Dot Com bubble, and Columbine. Each of these events feels like an echo from the future, warning us that if left unchecked the underlying problems embodied by these events would balloon into things far greater.
But the 90s was an age of assumptions filled with unbridled innocence and naivety. Nuclear annihilation had fallen with the Berlin Wall. Racial conflict was a thing of the 60s. Women were equal. Economic growth could not be stopped. Gas was cheap. Titanic was the greatest movie ever made. Everyone would own a home. And the internet would inestimably change our lives for the better.
9/11 shattered all of that. It woke us up to the reality that the world was not so perfect. Technology of the modern age could wreak untold havoc upon our lives. History had not “ended”. It had been reborn into something unclear and evil. Few events represent genuine pivot points from which we re-measure time. Millennials have arguably seen three such events before the age of forty: 9/11, 2008, and March 12, 2020. But 9/11 stands alone in culture, history, and consciousness. It reframed how we viewed the world, and it reawakened that evil abyss we pretended no longer existed. Only World War I marked such a dramatic shift in cultural consciousness in recent history. Virginia Woolf wrote about that war: “Then, suddenly like a chasm in a smooth road, the Great War came.”
First, we desperately searched through the rubble. Then we wanted revenge. Dan Rather cried on David Letterman’s show. Things changed. Next, we invaded. Thomas Friedman wrote “give war a chance.” Jack Bauer became America’s hero. Anybody could become America’s Idol. Then we invaded somewhere looking for anthrax and WMD’s. We never found them. “French” Fries were no more. A man in a black turtleneck convinced us to put a computer in our pockets. A pale, college-aged misanthrope in a hoodie tricked us into “connecting”. All those homes everyone wanted everybody to own in the 90s toppled the global economy because derivative traders on Wall Street got greedy. The Golden Age of TV became stories of high school teachers cooking meth, two-faced adulterers selling ads on Madison Avenue, mobsters getting therapy, and cloaked figures fighting White Walkers. We kept up with Kardashians and Jenners. Fame became a reason to be famous. A black man became President. The NSA collected all our meta-data. We learned to love to kill with drones. There was an Arab Spring. And then came a Civil War and genocide in Syria. Journalists’ heads were chopped off in the desert. Terrorists attacked Paris on one terrible night. Lots of kids died in schools because some evil lunatics could easily buy guns and shoot them. A reality TV star became President. There were lots and lots of angry tweets and other things. There was and is a deadly pandemic. An even older man became President. Kabul fell. And then we left Afghanistan.
It is twenty years of whirlwind disbelief, and to gaze back is to wonder “what if”?
What if the Soviets never invade Afghanistan? What if Reagan and Charlie Wilson never arm the Mujahedeen? What if the Taliban loses the Afghan Civil War? What if Iraq never goes to war with Iran at the U.S.’s nudging? What if Saddam Hussein never invades Kuwait to pay for that war? What if American troops never have to occupy Saudi Arabia? What if Osama Bin Laden never cares about that? What if Clinton bombs Bin Laden and kills hundreds of innocents in the process? What if instructors in Florida don’t give flight lessons to men from Saudi Arabia who have no interest in learning how to land planes? What if the FBI catches Mohamed Atta? What if security stops them before they pass through their metal detectors? What if airlines prohibited box-cutters from flights? What if we killed Bin Laden in Tora Bora? What if we never invaded Iraq? What if we left Afghanistan after we killed Bin Laden? What if we deployed 200,000 troops to Afghanistan to wipe the Taliban off the face of the Earth?
What if, on Flight 93, Todd Beamer had never said, “Okay. Are you ready? Let’s Roll”…
9/11 represents a series of seemingly improbable events that resulted in tragedy. But of all the possible ways it could have gone since, it seems equally inconceivable that the 20th anniversary of 9/11 should be marred with indelible images of Afghan babies, conceived some 19 years after 9/11, being handed to Americans Marines, some not even born on 9/11, as they flee Afghanistan in Taliban controlled Kabul.
23-year-old Sergeant Nicole Gee of the United States Marine Corps held one of those babies a few weeks ago. In a photo on her Instagram, clutching a baby in her arms, she wrote, “I love my job”. She was murdered a few days later. It is criminally ironic that this brave woman, an embodiment of that brave spirit of so many on 9/11, should have died defending the gate of an airport in a suicide terrorist attack against an evacuation brought about to coincide with the twentieth anniversary of suicide attacks launched from airports. Sergeant Gee was only 3 when those planes hit the Towers.
Never forget those murdered on 9/11. Never forget the firefighters and policemen who ran towards the flames and smoke and rubble on one-way journeys of heroism necessitated by one-way journeys of cowardice. Never forget those two or three months of unified bliss when the suicide rates of New Yorkers plummeted, and people tried to love one another. Never forget the $6 trillion spent on wars of folly. Never ever be so pitifully naïve to assume that history will simply “end”. Never forget the Nicole Gee’s or the Todd Beamer’s.
Pray for those whose lives will never be the same because of that day. Pray for those tortured souls still searching for answers. Pray for those people in far off places whose lives were uprooted because of forces outside their control. Pray for those whose lives for twenty years were measurably bettered, who now face untold horrors at the hands of evil. Pray for the thousands who, because of that day, went off to war and lost their limbs, their minds, or their souls.
We all dream that maybe — just maybe — we will still wake up and that nightmare of 9/11 never happened; that those poor souls might not have perished in those planes, in that rubble, and in these wars; and that we might begin these past two decades anew.
But those fantastical dreams from the 90s crumbled with those two magisterial Towers, that hole in the Pentagon, and that field in Shanksville. We are living in the shadow of 9/11’s history forevermore. Never forget that.