Danehy: Lessons to remember 20 years after 9/11

When the definitive history of this era is written, the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, will loom large, but perhaps not in the way many people might think.

It is a widely held misconception (there’s a lot of that going around these days) that participating in sports builds character. It had correctly been pointed out that such is not the case. It doesn’t build character; it reveals it. So, too, I’m afraid, did the attacks on 9/11. 

Oh, for a time, we were as one. We circled the wagons, mourned the dead, and displayed all of the outward (and often clichéd) signs of patriotism. We connected with our families, we were nicer to strangers, and we ALL believed that America was the right place and would do the right thing. I remember yelling with joy when President George W. Bush grooved a semblance of a fastball when he threw out the first pitch of the delayed World Series, seven weeks after the deadly attacks. (There’s a really good “30 For 30” on ESPN about how Yankee captain Derek Jeter came upon Bush as the President was warming up in the bowels of Yankee Stadium. They chatted as Bush was waiting for the Secret Service to give him the okay to even go out onto the field.)

But, it didn’t last. Within months, the pride in America had curdled into blood lust. The bad people around Bush convinced him to flail outwards and 20 years of American misadventures began. 

I wrote at the time that America should spare no expense to track down Osama bin-Laden. Find him, capture him, and put him on trial. That’s what America does and we should have been able to do it better than anybody else in history. Instead, we attacked Iraq and the folly was on. 

Gutless politicians on both sides of the aisle displayed their true character. Even Hillary (By Golly) Clinton, her moistened index finger to the wind, voted to invade Iraq instead of focusing on bin-Laden. It was a tragic mass rush to insanity. 

Thus began an inexorable slide into paranoia, jingoism, and racism wrapped in a cloak of “national security.” It led us to where we are today, where a bombastic minority wants to destroy our institutions and eviscerate democracy in order to hang on to some distorted vision of what our country should be (but never really was). They want to destroy America in order to save “America.” There are people who would risk their own lives and those of others by not getting a vaccination because it might help America have a better economy under a Biden Administration. What makes that so mind-numbingly stupid is the irrefutable fact that, for almost 100 years now, the American economy has performed better when a Democrat is in the White House than it did under the preceding Republican Administration or the GOP Administration that follows. (You should look that up; it’s amazingly consistent.)

In the two decades following 9/11, while America sorta-fought an Orwellian war that had faded from a public drumbeat into a nagging little ache in the back of the collective head, it became okay to be publicly wary or even terrified of The Others. The people flying those planes into building were Arabs, so let’s lash out at all Arabs. And some Arabs look like some Black people, so…?

Most of us who lived through 9/11 probably believed that the attacks would make America a better place. We were horrified that 3,000 Americans died that day, but it’s not even close to being the bloodiest day in American history. And now, another 3,000 Americans die every two days from a deadly virus that we could have wiped out months ago were it not for a political madness, the origins of which can be traced back to 9/11.   

The fear of terrorism (and of people who don’t look like many of us) has poisoned our society and led to the rise of everything from widespread xenophobia and Christian nationalism to overt white supremacy. It also helped elect a dim-witted xenophobe who was just savvy enough to play what should have been a losing hand of racism, ignorance and fear. And it led to an all-out assault on our way of life on January 6th.   

I don’t care what your political leanings are. Just try to tell me that, as small evidence of the unraveling of our society, you haven’t noticed that some drivers have become more openly disdainful of the law and, in the process, more dangerous to all the rest of us. Sadly, not a day goes by that I don’t see someone run a red light. And I don’t mean by a split second. It’s by one or two or even more seconds, without even a thought of braking. They barrel on through the intersection with the mentality of “the government can’t tell me to get a shot, so it can’t tell me to stop at a red light, either.”

Those terrorists who flew into the building that day didn’t succeed in the way they probably intended. They were not followed into Murderers’ Heaven by thousands of copycats. They didn’t initially weaken America’s will, but they helped spread the seeds of division that are threatening us today. 

We’ve got to do better. All of us.