The Observer-Reporter building in Washington

For anyone who was alive and sentient on that day, it’s hard to fathom that 20 years have gone by since Sept. 11, 2001.

That’s long enough for fashions and technologies to have passed through multiple evolutions, for five presidential elections to have happened, for children to have been born and reached adulthood, for people in middle age to have joined the ranks of the elderly. Despite the fact that a little more than 7,300 days have been crossed off the calendar since that brilliant late summer morning, 9/11 can still seem vivid and shocking, particularly when you see the footage of the second plane slamming into the World Trade Center as black smoke pours from the gash already made by the first plane. It brings back all the shock and fear of that morning, when we wondered exactly how many hijacked planes were in the sky and where would they strike next.

The passage of time has inevitably brought hindsight, and one of things that now stands out is how 9/11 seemed to kick off an era of cascading crises. Arguably, this epoch of turmoil might have gotten underway with the effort to remove President Bill Clinton from office over a private sexual relationship in 1998, or the Florida recount that held the 2000 presidential election in limbo for weeks. But those seem like bread and circuses compared to 9/11 and what followed: the protracted and inconclusive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; the Great Recession; school shootings; the divisions stirred up by President Trump’s tenure in the White House; the pandemic that has claimed many times more lives than 9/11; the Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd; the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol; the growing specter of climate change after a summer of weather disasters. Without a doubt, the 20 years that came before 9/11 were much more tranquil.

It’s probably a reflection of the deep uncertainties of the moment, the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and our weariness as the pandemic drags on, but it’s notable how much of the commentary that has emerged in recent days about the 20th anniversary of 9/11 is laced with pessimism. Writing in New York magazine, Franck Rich said, “The overarching and humbling truth we must take away from 9/11 is how wrong most of us were at the time, myself certainly included, about what that dark day meant and where it would lead. The widespread patriotic conviction that the country had come together in unity and solidarity with a wounded New York melted away before the missing-persons flyers did in lower Manhattan.”

And in The Atlantic, historian and journalist Garrett M. Graff says that the United States “got almost everything wrong” in the aftermath of 9/11 by succumbing to fear, meting out torture to terrorism suspects in CIA custody and squandering the world’s goodwill. Graff says bad decisions led to “tragic consequences, cynical choices and poisonous politics.”

“Looking back after two decades, I can’t escape the conclusion that the enemy we ended up fighting after 9/11 was ourselves,” Graff writes.

If we take as a given that there have been stumbles and errors in the 20 years since Sept. 11, 2001, perhaps we should place our faith in the young adults who were not alive then – or were too young to remember 9/11 – to help set the country on a better course in the 20 years ahead of us.

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