1. Look Back in Anger
America’s greatest existential threat wasn’t terrorism.
By Frank Rich
IF YOU WANT TO CONTEMPLATE the legacy of 9/11 20 years later, the logical place to begin might be the 9/11 Memorial & Museum. It bills itself as “the country’s principal institution concerned with exploring 9/11, documenting its impact, and examining its continuing significance.” And so it is, though not necessarily in the way its proponents had imagined.
Battered by covid, whose New York City body count is thus far well over ten times that at ground zero, the museum was staring down a $45 million deficit and laid off nearly 60 percent of its staff during its pandemic closure. Its aspirations for special 20th-anniversary events have been downsized or scuttled. The guest list for the annual memorial ceremony is again limited to families of the dead, spurning the firefighters, police, and medics whose lives were on the line that day. A planned traveling exhibition to revive 9/11 memories nationwide has been replaced by what the New York Times describes as “downloadable posters created in partnership with the American Library Association.”
Even at half-mast, the 9/11 Memorial & Museum is riven by the ideological divides and culture wars endemic to almost every other civic institution in Donald Trump’s wake. There are disputes over its presentation of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and its steerage-class treatment of rescue workers. There are battles over the museum’s efforts to restrict the usage of its vast archive of recordings as well as its ban on protesters and demonstrations. There is lingering dissent to the installation of a gift shop on the site of mass carnage.
The museum receives little public funding, with 95 percent of its budget coming from earned revenue, mainly ticket sales. (Its Payback Protection Program loan of $4.6 million was less than half the amount bestowed on the parent company of Potbelly Sandwich Shops.) The museum’s philanthropic portal is named the Never Forget Fund—“Never forget” having been the nation’s Holocaust-resonant mantra in the aftermath of the attacks. There is no guarantee, however, that an enterprise reliant on the largesse of the fickle American public won’t disappear down a memory hole. The museum could yet go the way of the Automat. The two pools that compose the elegant memorial, should they fall short of attaining the indelibility of Maya Lin’s Vietnam memorial in Washington, could fade into a Tripadvisor also-ran. Nor is permanence guaranteed for the hulking skyscraper that opened down the block in 2014 as a complementary post-9/11 assertion of anti-terrorist defiance. (If we don’t rebuild, the terrorists will have won, the adage had it back then.) Originally merchandised as the Freedom Tower, it retreated to the name One World Trade Center when potential occupants balked that “Freedom” might make them a bull’s-eye for terrorists. The building’s eventual anchor tenant, the straitened magazine publisher Condé Nast, briefly withheld rent and threatened to flee to New Jersey this year.
Never forget. What, aside from the memory of the dead and the heroism of those who tried to come to their rescue, are we supposed to remember about 9/11? There’s the war in Afghanistan, of course. The smell of the incinerated flesh downtown was still wafting across the city when George W. Bush promulgated what he called “Operation Enduring Freedom” for the righteous goals of bringing Osama bin Laden to justice “dead or alive” and overthrowing the grotesque Taliban regime that had sheltered him. CNN branded it “America’s New War,” and polling showed that at least 80 percent of Americans supported it. Victory seemed swift by one measure: The Taliban was toppled by Thanksgiving. But bin Laden escaped from Tora Bora the following month when Bush’s Pentagon turned its attention to a pending war of choice in Iraq and bungled its central 9/11 mission of apprehending the mastermind of the attacks. It was “one of the most spectacular misjudgments in U.S. military history,” in the words of the bin Laden biographer Peter Bergen.
Twenty years later, “America’s New War” has long since become America’s longest war. As President Biden pulled the plug—bizarrely choosing 9/11/21 as the initial deadline for withdrawal—some two-thirds of Americans thought it had not been worth fighting. They had never been on board for Bush’s pivot from a war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban to a naïve and extravagant colonialist exercise in nation-building. And so now we’re back where we came in. Once heralded as the Day that Changed Everything in America, 9/11 proved to be Groundhog Day as far as the war was concerned. After some 2,500 American casualties, at least 240,000 Afghan deaths, and 2 trillion taxpayers’ dollars, the Taliban is back in power just in time for our 20thanniversary observances. This turn of events may be the most damning refutation yet of the short-lived 9/11 meme that “irony is dead.” Or the second-most damning: Many of the loudest voices in the media and in Washington decrying our inept and catastrophic exit—whether liberal or conservative, Democrat, Republican, or Never-Trump Republican—are the same voices that helped grease the skids for disaster in Afghanistan by promoting a second new war in Iraq on manufactured intelligence in the months after 9/11. They have major-media platforms but no shame or accountability. Those of them still in today’s GOP should in particular spare us the crocodile tears they are shedding for Afghan women and girls: There’s not a chance in hell that evacuated Muslim families will be welcome in MAGA’s backyards.
Like the war in Afghanistan, most other 9/11 certitudes have blown up over the ensuing decades. When Rudy Giuliani was front and center, during the long hours when Bush went awol after the attacks, he seized the leadership vacuum much as Andrew Cuomo would when Trump went awol on covid. “America’s Mayor,” as a hagiographic media crowned Rudy, was Time’s 2001 Person of the Year, beating out both Bush and bin Laden. How that guy devolved into a zealot spewing anti-democratic garbage in front of Four Seasons Total Landscaping in an industrial patch of northeastern Philadelphia is at once a historical parable for our time and a psychiatric case history for the ages. We also failed to imagine that Bush, the fleetingly beloved commander-in-chief of post-9/11, let alone his omnipotent vice-president’s political heir, Liz Cheney, would one day be persona non grata in their own party. Or that climate change would be a greater existential threat to America than radical-Islamist terrorism. Or that Congress, whose members once raced to the smoldering ground zero for photo ops, would turn its back on extending benefits for 9/11 victims until the enraged testimony of a tearful Jon Stewart embarrassed them into doing so.
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