I have nothing uplifting or heartwarming to say about the way we came together — as a city, as a nation, as a world — after the attacks of September 11, 2001. We tried that uplifting, heartwarming stuff already.
After the attacks, we said "this will not break us". We said this with great feeling, and I was one of many who really believed that the shock and sadness of that terrible day had brought us together in a new way, that our righteous, freedom-fueled responsive to this horrible act of violence would provide a new beacon of injured hope for our whole troubled world.
"This will not break us," we said. And for a few months after the attacks, it didn't break us. We had songs by Bruce Springsteen and the Who and Billy Joel to remind us we were alive. For months after the attack I would heal myself by strolling around the incredible soul-bracing memorials at Union Square and Washington Square and around the devastated smoking disaster site itself, talking to others, finding places to volunteer. Oh yeah, and we wrote poems, so many poems, so many good poems.
"This will not break us," we said.
But it broke us. Not us as individuals: we stayed strong, we kept it real. But the poisonous, petty symptoms of uncontrolled rage, misdirected sorrow and new global paranoia began to rot our collective moral heart as soon as our bewildered president intoned the words "we are at war". We quickly invaded Afghanistan — in the swirl of shock following the attacks, who among us could even see clearly whether that was right or wrong? at the time I couldn't — but then the great tragedy began when we invaded Iraq. That was the first sign that Osama bin Laden's attack on the United States of America was going to harm us far more even than the original attacks did. That was the first way we broke as a nation: we allowed ourselves to be provoked and fooled into declaring a rotten war, a phony war ... a war we could not even win, though the "Mission Accomplished" banners said we won.
The second sign that September 11 broke us came amidst an unbelievable flurry of both good and bad news: between late 2007 and 2008 our economy crashed due to corrupt banking practices, and we elected a wise president named Barack Obama. But the public rage and denial that greeted Barack Obama showed an unprecedented rising level of hate among our citizens. A new kind of ugly American conservatism suddenly made its presence felt. Ayn Rand was the new patron saint, Islamophobia the new siren call.
Today, the absurdist and unbelievably destructive candidacy of Donald Trump stands as the clearest evidence that we are a badly broken nation. Broken more than anybody would have predicted even a year ago — except for Donald Trump himself, who is known to enjoy reading Hitler's Mein Kampf, and who spotted a marketing trend everybody else missed: post-9/11 America is ripe for fascism. All Trump had to do was show up and make himself available for the role of fuhrer, and the crowds were there to applaud.
My fellow Americans, let's be honest about the fact that September 11 broke us. Osama bin Laden achieved his objectives more than he would have even guessed. Even Osama bin Laden probably would not have believed that our proud country would sink so low as to fall under the spell of Donald Trump as early as 2016. We swallowed all the poison Al Qaeda gave us, and that poison is still sitting in our stomach making us sicker and sicker every day. Look at us right now and tell me if you don't see it too.
I wrote previously about the fact that Donald Trump's embarrassing and deeply misguided candidacy could never have happened if we were not a terribly traumatized nation. Trump is proof that our spirit has been temporarily broken, our dreams misplaced, our sense of common trust gone. This would never have occurred if September 11 hadn't shaken us to our core, if fear and paranoia hadn't knocked us down.
It's certainly not too late to pick ourselves up. But we'd better do it fast. We look like a mess to the world right now, that's for sure. American exceptionalism? The United States of America that invaded Iraq (for no reason at all, destroying over 600,000 human lives, creating ISIL in its tragic wake), the United States of America that waged an eight-year campaign of blinding hatred against Barack Obama, the United States of America that makes Donald Trump its public face? The only thing exceptional about this United States of America is how exceptionally misdirected we are.
September 11 broke us, but it didn't break us for good. We will find our way back together, somehow. But we haven't even begun to find the path yet.
We need to come to terms with the fact that being attacked with four hijacked airplanes traumatized us and cut us to our soul. We need to really heal ... and it's going to take more than a few good songs by Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen before we do.
Fifteen years! I spent the afternoon of September 11, 2001 around ground zero, trying (without success) to help. Of course it's a day I'll never forget.
Today, fifteen years later, I'm still trying (without success) to help.
I'm not giving up on my city, my country, my world.
But we sure look like a broken society right now, my friends. We'd better get busy. We've got a lot of healing, a lot of soul-searching, and a lot of cleaning up to do.