The twentieth anniversary of 9/11 and the United States’ disastrous pullout from Afghanistan has prompted a reckoning. But it’s not a new one.
The day the twin towers fell is seen nationally and internationally as a monumental tragedy, one that divided the history of the United States into a before and after. A generation of younger Americans either don’t remember the attacks at all, or were too young to understand their significance. However, twenty years later, it is hard not to recall the tragedies that happened and how they shaped the country's politics and policies.
Every year as school begins, classes dedicate a day to discuss the event. Teachers and students alike would share their memories of horror, fear and helplessness as they watched the towers fall down. On one hand, the wave of patriotism and unity that swept across the country following the attacks, and on the other hand, the rise of Islamophobia that followed.
In the years since then, the underlying divisions in our country’s society have become clear. In the weeks following the attacks mosques were burned down, and Muslim Americans and those perceived to be Muslim faced harassment, death threats and physical attacks. A generation of Muslim Americans have grown up facing discrimination and questions of their national loyalty, being made to feel like they don’t belong to this country as ‘real’ Americans.
Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates in his 2015 book Between the World and Me describes a feeling of disconnect as he watched the Twin Towers fall. As a Black American, he saw racism embedded in American institutions like the police and struggled to summon any feeling of patriotism even on a day of national tragedy.
While Coates has certainly stirred controversy and that passage in particular has been heavily criticized, the space in American discourse to criticize the inherent injustice in the country’s institutions is ever-growing. The idea that the U.S. might create its own terrorists through its foreign policy is becoming more widely spoken about. The United States’ legacy in the Middle East, history of systemic racism, current failures in law enforcement, criminal justice, health care access and economic mobility make the idea of American exceptionalism laughable among American progressives these days.
The manipulation of the tragedy of 9/11 to justify an unrestrained war on terror has been heavily criticized, and many assert that this narrative of fear of a foreign enemy led to the rise of Trump and that similar rhetoric has been used by China to defend its brutal suppression of the Uighur Muslim minority.
Protests over racialized police violence and the rise of far-right extremism and white supremacists have forced many Americans to reckon with an entrenched racism that popular rhetoric had told us we had already overcome. This bitter division over how to remember our history is now playing out over school curriculums.
Millennials, the generation born roughly between 1980 and 1995, are more diverse, less religious, and more educated than older Americans. They’re extremely online, they study abroad more and less likely to join the military. While millennials came out in full force for Obama, but later split over whether he really enacted the change he had promised. For years they’ve been skeptical of the traditional rhetoric of America being a land of freedom and opportunity, a liberator of oppressed peoples.
These past few weeks as young Americans have watched with horror the disastrous end of a distant war they may be really reckoning for the first time with a conflict that has been “ever-present but invisible enough to ignore”. Many are asking themselves why we were there in the first place, and if our government made the right decisions.
The twenty-year anniversary of an event they may not even remember brings these questions into focus that we’ve been asking ourselves over the past few years about America’s place in the world and the degree to which we’ve lived up to our ideals. While still incredibly polarized, Americans are less afraid than ever to face these questions head-on.