OPINION

The Burning Tower(s).

Reflections on 20 years since 9/11.

If the Baby Boomers’ collective memory was rooted in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, September 11th, 2001 served the same purpose for Generation X. Though, in all likelihood, 9/11 displaced the Kennedy shooting in the minds of the Boomers. In terms of world-historical significance, there is no competition—you know the seminal event of a lifetime when you see it.

These historical singularities, if you’re unlucky enough to live through one, are not simply tragic: they are moments that color all the years that follow. They are occurrences that were in some way inconceivable until you watched them unfold—the kind of thing that would have sounded like the plot of some terrible movie until you witnessed them with your own eyes.

These world-historical moments don’t merely serve as civilizational bookmarks, convenient markers that divide the inexorable blur of human events—they are also dividers in our own lives. “Where were you when you heard about Kennedy?” they’d ask. That question was not trivial. It wasn’t just a matter of where you were… it was a matter of who you were at that moment in time. And answering that question is a prerequisite to answering others: Who were we? Who are we now?

1998 Bombing of Iraq.

1998 Bombing of Iraq.

“WHERE WERE YOU WHEN THE TWIN TOWERS FELL?”

In the fall of 1999, I was in my last year of college as an undergraduate. I rented a house with my two best friends from school. A shameful memory from that time is the photograph of Osama bin Laden that hung on the wall at the top of our stairs. Back then, few Americans knew that name. We only knew him from an interview in the February 1999 issue of Esquire magazine, where he declared his war on the west to a popular American audience.

There were signs that some kind of cataclysm was coming. As warnings about Y2K spread, I wondered: would it happen on New Years Eve?

Why was the photo from that article at the top of our stairs? Because like most 21-year-old men, we were enamored with revolutionaries. Our politics were not sophisticated, but we were political people. One of my roommates was a Zola-reading Rastafarian communist, and the other was a white elementary school teacher who was particularly concerned with black poverty in downtown Charleston, SC, where we lived.

As for me, my political beliefs were probably the most incoherent. I was sympathetic to the ideals of Marxism, but I was also aware of the widespread affluence that American capitalism had produced. I was quite skeptical of America’s global adventurism, and I was angry when Bill Clinton ordered the bombing of Iraq in an obvious effort to distract from his impending impeachment. Perhaps more than anything, I was concerned about technology and the digital revolution, the dehumanizing aspects of which were already evident to me back then. I sensed a rising millenarianism—an acceleration of cultural anxiety as the year 2000 approached. There were signs that some kind of cataclysm was coming. As warnings about Y2K spread, I wondered: would it happen on New Years Eve? I went to Times Square to see. It didn’t. Not then, anyway.

A few weeks later, during my last semester in Charleston, my friends and I hosted a party to celebrate the start of term. My roommate’s girlfriend insisted on doing a tarot reading for all of us—a reading for our shared future. The main card we drew that night was the burning tower. I didn’t believe in cartomancy or fortune-telling. Tarot was just the sort of thing that artsy kids of our kind did for kicks in the ‘90s. But when our house burned down later that night through a bizarre sequence of events, I remembered with some apprehension that we had drawn the card with the burning tower. In my mind, I can still see Osama’s wall, covered in flames as we pointlessly threw pots of water on the fire.

The house was ruined. I figured this must have been the catastrophic event that I felt coming. I finished out the semester sleeping on friends’ couches. After graduation, I had no idea what to do. It felt like it was time to grow up. I didn’t have any job prospects in Charleston, so I convinced Ellie (the love of my life and then a college freshman) to move with me back to my hometown of Rochester, NY—a city that is covered in snow for about 6 months of the year. She agreed, but it wasn’t an easy move for a girl who had grown up on a Carolina beach. We rented a one-bedroom apartment downtown. I got a job as an assistant manager at a medical bookstore, and she went to school at SUNY Geneseo.

1998 Bombing of Iraq.

1998 Bombing of Iraq.

We weren’t happy in Rochester. I had lost touch with most of my friends from high school, and we hadn’t made many new friends there. Ellie hated the cold. She missed her friends in Charleston. She also felt like I was a bit too comfortable in a job that I didn’t like because it made few demands of me. Her mother was pressuring her to leave me. I resented those things, and she started to resent me. It was clear that the relationship was deteriorating. In August of 2001, we took some time off together to talk things over and attend a few Radiohead shows in Canada. Radiohead’s music from that period was a fitting soundtrack for the millennial apocalypse. That was apt. Not only did I still have this nagging sense that a great cultural break was on the horizon, it was also clear that my girl was leaving.

He informed me that a plane had hit the World Trade Center.

She left a week later and I moped around for the remainder of August. But I knew I had to do something to get her attention. I decided to apply to graduate school in Charleston. If I got in, I could impress Ellie by telling her I was in grad school—and maybe get back together. If nothing else, I would be close enough that I could keep an eye on her. Until then, I would keep going through the motions at the bookstore.

Each morning, after arriving at the bookstore, I’d have a cigarette at the bus stop before going inside. One morning in September, I was smoking when an unfamiliar man walked up and said “Did you hear what happened?” After I said that I had not, he informed me that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I rushed inside to turn on the radio in the store. Like everyone, I wondered at first if this was a horrible accident. When the second plane hit, my stomach sank. I recalled that photo of Bin Laden and the Esquire interview. I knew right away who had done this.

We listened to the radio the rest of the day, getting briefed on the attack at the Pentagon and the crash of Flight 93 (we only learned later of the heroic deeds of the people on that flight). For much of the day, fighter jets flew over Rochester—there was a span of time where it was unknown exactly how many aircraft had been hijacked. I wondered aloud to my boss whether the towers would actually collapse. He assured me that such a thing couldn’t happen. When they did, I remembered the card with the burning tower from the night of the house fire.

I got home to my empty room, watched the news on mute, and got drunk while I listened to Radiohead’s OK Computer. The lyrics of the song “Paranoid Android” were disgustingly fitting: “Rain down, rain down on me—from a great height, from a great height. That’s it, sir. You’re leaving. The crackle of pig skin. The dust and the screaming. The yuppies networking. The panic. The vomit. The panic. The vomit. God loves his children.” As I watched Americans jumping out of a burning skyscraper on television, I understood the meaning of “terrorism” for the first time. That night I had the worst nightmare of my life.

Weeks later, my application to graduate school was accepted. In the time since Ellie left, I had seen the film Good Will Hunting. One night in mid-October, I packed up all my stuff. At midnight, I went to the bookstore and left my key on the boss’s desk with a note that I plagiarized from the movie: “I had to go see about a girl.” I got in the car and drove south.

Times Square in New York City, 1990s.

Times Square in New York City, 1990s.

THE AFTERMATH: WHERE DID WE GO? WHAT WOULD WE BECOME?

9/11 scared me. Until then, I had assumed that America was untouchable, that our hold on power was uncontestable. I was wrong. It suddenly made sense to me that we couldn’t simply take America for granted: we had to defend it. It was that realization that made me a supporter of the war in Afghanistan. We had to make sure that 9/11 couldn’t happen again. When the push to invade Iraq began, I supported that, too. If Saddam had “weapons of mass destruction,” then we had to make sure that he couldn’t use them against us. I was disgusted by the public opposition to invading Iraq, which seemed to be driven by a hatred of President Bush, for whom I had cast a reluctant vote in late 1999.

The 9/11 wars rolled on. President Obama, elected in part to end those wars, escalated both—especially in Afghanistan…

Throughout the rest of his administration, America became increasingly polarized. On the right, people insisted that patriotism meant “supporting the troops,” which was synonymous with supporting the wars that they had to fight. The left proclaimed that “dissent is the highest form of patriotism,”—and it seemed that the entirety of “dissent” consisted in disparaging the president, rural Americans, and American culture in general. This disparagement was the substance of what it meant to “oppose” the 9/11 wars. That, and “not in my name” sloganeering.

The years since 2003 can only be described as an ongoing political revenge game. Certainly, the leftist opposition to Bush and “his” wars (which were both granted the permission of Congress) were motivated by some genuine antiwar sentiment. But the left’s anti-Bush sentiment was equally driven by enduring anger at what they (correctly) viewed as a frivolous impeachment of Bill Clinton and the outcome of the contested 2000 election, which they (incorrectly) insisted had been “stolen.” By the time the 2008 campaign came around, Bush was “literally Hitler” in the eyes of the media and a good segment of the public. This, coupled with the war-weariness of the public, the unique rhetorical talents of Barack Obama, and the rapidly unfolding financial collapse of 2008, ensured a Democratic victory.

President Obama entered the office with a huge mandate and enormous good will, but quickly revealed himself to be uninterested in bi-partisan negotiation and petulantly dismissive of any criticism. The Affordable Care Act was rammed through via reconciliation (despite the fact that some polls showed over 80% of Americans were satisfied with their health insurance, making such a radical measure unnecessary). It was undeniably a major legislative achievement, but the administration’s impatience and unilateralism turned many Americans against Obama’s agenda. Those dissenters quickly learned that exercising “the highest form of patriotism” went right out of style after Bush left office.

The 9/11 wars rolled on. President Obama, elected in part to end those wars, escalated both—especially in Afghanistan, where he added nearly 100,000 troops. Tellingly, the antiwar left remained silent, even as Obama approved the bombing of seven nations during his tenure and made extensive use of drone warfare throughout the Middle East. Obama also defaulted on his promise to close Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp.

Throughout his eight years, conservatives railed against the man and his agenda. The right wanted to eviscerate President Obama in the court of public opinion, returning the favor of the hatchet job that the left had inflicted on W. As Obama prepared to leave office, ISIS (the “J.V. team” to Al-Qaeda) had established a grisly Caliphate in Iraq and Syria. Afghanistan remained a mess. Obama was unable to turn the page on 9/11.

Operation Desert Fox.

Operation Desert Fox.

The shock of Donald Trump’s election and the trauma that followed need not be recounted. It’s enough to say that the entire institutional structure of America mobilized against a duly elected president—universities, the bugmen of the vast federal bureaucracy, Hollywood, corporate America, and all the rest of it. If Bush was literally Hitler, then President Trump was LITERALLY Hitler. Dissent was back in style, and The Resistance was all the rage. Much of the public antipathy at Trump stemmed from nothing that he did. Instead, it was motivated by the sense that Democrats have a right to the White House. Not only had President Trump violated that right, he stymied the destiny of Hillary Clinton, who was to be Our First Woman President.

Again, the right and left switched sides in our national revenge game.

The Biden administration hurried a haphazard, ill-considered withdrawal in order to finish it by a purely symbolic date: this anniversary of 9/11.

Like the left, President Trump wanted out of the 9/11 wars. When the administration announced plans to completely end American military presence in Afghanistan, it was strange to see Democrats tut-tutting about how reckless such a move would be. Trump approved airstrikes that annihilated ISIS, but like his predecessor, he failed to move America past 9/11. When the Iraqi parliament voted to remove the 5,000 remaining American troops from the country, his administration rejected this request and threatened sanctions. He left office before the planned withdrawal of troops in Afghanistan. Guantanamo remains open today.

The nonsense and manipulations of the 2020 presidential race need not be rehearsed here. Shortly after President Biden’s installation, he made it clear that terrorism was still the top threat to America. But in 2021, it is no longer Islamist radicals who want to destroy Our Democracy™—it is “domestic extremists,” an epithet for anyone who is vocally opposed to institutional leftism. In the blink of an eye, then, dissent again transformed into treason in the eyes of the ruling class.

Only weeks ago, we watched the supersonic collapse of our work in Afghanistan—work that cost enormous blood and treasure over 20 years. The Biden administration hurried a haphazard, ill-considered withdrawal in order to finish it by a purely symbolic date: this anniversary of 9/11.

This debacle was the final proof that we had failed the national test of 9/11. And it’s not simply Joe Biden’s fault, though believing that to be the case might spare us the pain of further introspection. It’s the fault of the whole damn cast of charlatans who have governed the nation since I was an adolescent. The psychic shock of 9/11 and the few thousand people who died there were not enough to destroy America on their own. But the sclerotic, deranged response to that event over 20 years of failed leadership was enough. We did Al-Qaeda’s work for them.

Radiohead album covers.

Radiohead album covers.

HISTORY AND THE END OF THE AMERICAN ERA: WHO WE ARE AND WHAT WE LOST

I was a 23-year-old kid when the towers burned. I am a 43-year-old man now. In many ways, life has been very good to me these twenty years. I ended up marrying that girl I left Rochester to track down. She has given me two wonderful children. I was able to go to school, complete a PhD, and become a university professor. But ever since 9/11, America has been different from the one I knew as a child. Since that September morning, America never really regained its footing. We have flown from one crisis to the next, and sociopolitical and economic instability have been the only constants.

The America that my children will come to know is a diminished one.

As a people, we are wounded. The injuries sustained on 9/11 weren’t fatal. Instead, it seems we’ve been bleeding out from a million self-imposed cuts. The America that my children will come to know is a diminished one. And I am resentful of the fact that the chronic mismanagement of this great country has robbed me of much of the national pride and optimism I had as a younger man.

In 1992, conservative political philosopher Francis Fukuyama released a much-discussed book called The End of History and the Last Man. Essentially, the argument was this: after the collapse of the Soviet Union and Berlin Wall, and with the rapid spread of liberal democracy across the globe, we had concluded the cycle of political development that stretched across history. Liberal democracy would be the final form of governance, destined for universal implementation. In recent years Fukuyama has conceded the flaws of his earlier prediction, but it’s hard to blame him for his earlier optimism. In 1995, his thesis would have been hard to refute. And this feeling that we were at the “end of history” in some sense, wasn’t limited to thinkers on the political right.

Jean Baudrillard (a leftist French philosopher known for his criticism of the concept of postmodern reality as a kind of “pseudo-reality” or simulation) published a book called The Illusion of the End in the same year that Fukuyama’s was released. Baudrillard’s book dealt specifically with the approach of the year 2000, and offered an interpretation of the cultural forces in play on the eve of the millennium. Like Fukuyama, Baudrillard also observes a change unfolding in the continuity of history itself. He writes:

[W]e have passed that limit where, by dint of the sophistication of events and information, history ceases to exist as such. […] [T]hat famous feedback effect which is produced in acoustics by a source and a receiver being too close together and in history by an event and its dissemination being too close together and thus interfering disastrously […] These are things which cast a radical doubt on the event […]: beyond this point, nothing is true.

9/11 was the first time the entire globe observed this kind of socio-historical feedback loop at the same time and in real time. The live broadcasts of the second plane hitting the towers, the cameras’ unmoving focus on the towers as they burned, the way that a smokescreen of pulverized concrete took over our screens in the horrific minutes after their collapse—these things ensured we all had a simulated presence and experience in lower Manhattan that day. This “hypermediation,” as Baudrillard would call it, is the moment at which the media broadcast of an event comes to influence the unfolding of the event itself—a historical feedback loop. The simultaneous representation and broadcast of the event transforms the reality of the event.

As if we’re stuck in the dystopia of Radiohead’s OK Computer, we’ve been living in this mediated feedback loop for twenty years now—technological advances have collapsed the time that used to exist between an occurrence and the moment when we were called to respond to it. That stretch of time, when it existed, was a moment for contemplation—a span when the event held still, allowing us to consider the ramifications of how we responded to a crisis. Now that moment is gone—the riots become “mostly peaceful” at the same time as the city burns; the media outlets who will characterize the breach of the Capitol as an “insurrection” are already inside, waiting to greet the rioters with cameras as the rioters broadcast themselves, taking selfies in Nancy’s office. The intermediate moment of contemplation and strategy is lost in the feedback loop, and with it, our ability to control events.

Now, the events control us. And oddly, in this inversion, history returns—if only because we can remember that the world used to be different. 9/11 was a decisive break within history, contained by history—not a break from it. It inaugurated our new age of technological anxiety and geopolitical vertigo. The beginning of this feedback loop was itself a historical event—one that transformed our nation. Whether we can escape the loop and rediscover the contemplative moment (and with it some semblance of stability and sanity) is an open question, but one that is not for today.

Today is not simply a remembrance of the lives lost twenty years ago and the suffering that those losses inflicted on so many others. It is also a remembrance of the America that we lost in the years that followed. 

This article is part of a Human Events Opinion Special Collection released September 11th, 2021: “9/11: A Twenty Year Retrospective.”

Written By:

Adam Ellwanger is a professor of English at the University of Houston–Downtown, where he studies rhetoric, writing, and public discourse. His new book, Metanoia: Rhetoric, Authenticity, and the Transformation of the Self, is available now. Reach him at adamellwanger@gmail.com, on Twitter @DoctorEllwanger, or @TheHereticalTruth on Parler.