A few days after 9/11 a photo circulated on the Internet. In it an unwary tourist posed on the observation deck of one of the twin towers while, behind him, a plane hurtled toward him. According to the story, the camera was found in the rubble and the memory card survived. But the photograph frames the wrong plane coming from the wrong direction at a time when the observation deck would not have been open. Still, I remember seeing it for the first time and feeling sorry for this poor guy who was about to perish.
Sixteen years later the story we like to tell as Americans is that we rallied together as a country and overcame the attacks that day. I’m afraid the truth is a little fuzzier. That attack and the willingness with which we accepted the fake photo, and the accusation that it was all a government plot, and the opinion that the planes carried bombs, that no plane ever struck the Pentagon, that Muslims in New Jersey cheered the collapse of the towers—all this was the beginning of fake news. It grew through the birther movement, the “hoax” of Newtown, and the lies of Benghazi. And when we got to the point where we were too lazy to discern the difference between a sexual predator and a public servant, we elected Donald Trump instead of Hillary Clinton.
The terrorists won that day, not because they ruthlessly murdered 3000 people, but because we never allowed ourselves to recover. We didn’t have to: George W. Bush told us to go shopping, and we did. In the absence of sacrifice, conspiracy theories and paranoia, once the province of late-night radio and the insomniacs who listened, became mainstream; and personalities like Rush Limbaugh were able to parlay the new idiocy into a skepticism so profound, that not even the most logical scientific findings could be accepted any longer. Do you really wonder why climate change, a given in the scientific community, is rejected by an entire political party?
It’s 2017. New York City has been rebuilt, as has the Pentagon. In Shanksville, Pennsylvania, a memorial stands honoring the passengers on Flight 93 whose actions probably saved the White House or the Capitol. Every year the names of the 9/11 deceased are read aloud and “Never Forget” posts adorn Facebook.
Not forgetting will be easy. I remember Pearl Harbor even though it happened before I was born. It led to a horrific war in the 1940s, but afterwards America became a better country: people who had sacrificed together now worked together to build a middle class, to get their kids to college, to better integrate the races, to offer opportunities to women, to eliminate diseases and make scientific advancements that had been unheard of. Salaries rose. Polio was gone. Satellites were launched. Colleges were filled with kids whose parents had never had the same opportunity. We bought homes. We built the Corvette. We traveled in 707s. We watched movies in CinemaScope. We listened in stereo! The sacrifices of the greatest generation led to something better not only for the wealthy but for everyone. No, it was not a perfect country, but one with clear, recognizable, and commendable goals.
The real tragedy of 9/11 is that it marked the beginning of a decline, a divisiveness that began with attacks on Muslim-Americans, continued with the trumped-up Iraq War, found its most strident voice in the advent of the Tea Party, then finally installed a hapless and vengeful incompetent in the White House. Today we must trust in the wisdom of people like Scott Pruitt, Jeff Sessions, and Kellyanne Conway, because the truth has been silenced. They want us to move backwards and we’re following along.
We’ll remember 9/11 and honor the memory of those who died in the events of that dark day, but we also have to remember the years that came after it, and that may not elicit quite the same reverence.