Walking through the airport last night on my way back from a trip out of town, I reflected on the massive security systems that we now take for granted. None of this existed before September 11, 2001. Screening was minimal at airports prior to that fateful day. I’m old enough to remember the days when a business traveler could run to catch the Eastern Shuttle with just seconds to spare. The Eastern Shuttle is long gone, and so is the delight in easy air travel.
Extensive airport security, and the tacit surrender of our individual rights and liberties that goes along with raising your arms overhead so a machine can look through your clothing, is one of the more visible consequences of the terrible terrorist acts of September 11. But accepting minor inconvenience for the sake of security is a relatively benign issue. Far more consequential are the ways in which our society and culture have changed, and continue to change, in the far-reaching and bitterly evil effects of that awful day.
Xenophopia, a clinical fear of anything strange or foreign, is the most prevalent consequence of September 11, and the demagogues who claim political power exploit this fear to their own advantage. Authoritarian dictators have exploited xenophobia for centuries, and now we see this sickness running rampant through the electorates in the world’s major democracies, notably the United States and the United Kingdom. The inchoate fear of strangers led to the election of a president in the United States whose anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rhetoric is a notorious exploitation of the deep injury to the national psyche that September 11’s horrors inflicted on America. In a somewhat different but nevertheless consequential way, the fear of “the other” — the influence of a broadly inclusive European culture and the immigrants flooding into Europe — influenced the citizens of Great Britain to vote in favor of Brexit, a choice to leave the European Union, allowing the ultimate rise of Boris Johnson whose resemblance to Donald Trump is more than hair. Now, in both the US and UK, the political consequences of xenophobia are coming home to roost in rapidly rising levels of political chaos and domestic unrest that threaten to fracture the societies and undermine the governments.
September 11 gave new life to the National Rifle Association and those who believe that the only true security is through building a personal arsenal. The unprecedented wave of mass shootings in America is a symptom of the deeply disordered sickness of fear and suspicion of others that the terrorists unleashed in too many souls already harboring dispositions toward hatred.
Terrorists are most often rogue actors, not agents of nation-states, but likely to be adherents to some kind of fundamentalist ideologies that attract minds vulnerable to gross manipulation. The people who willingly followed Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda to their ultimate deaths were susceptible to messages of fear and isolation, of horrific distortion of moral and religious concepts. America went on the hunt to track down and kill bin Laden, to eliminate Al Qaeda, and in so doing the hunt became broader and more global, enlarged to a quest to ban Muslims from entry, to raise walls against immigrants, to secure personal weapons of increasing power against some future day of woe.
Nobody “won” the War on Terror. The war in Iraq produced little but destruction. The related war in Afghanistan drags on, the longest war in American history. The Taliban lives, more influential and dangerous than ever. On the home front, the United States today has become deeply divided, angry and fearful, and increasingly vulnerable to political exploitation as a result.
We lost more than 3,000 people on September 11, and we remember them on this painful anniversary. But we cannot avenge their deaths by indulging the anger and fear, by building more walls and accepting increasingly intrusive security systems. The best way to remember them is to strengthen our democracy, to re-assert America’s love for freedom and generous spirit that once welcomed the stranger, the immigrant and refugee seeking a better way of life. We need to purge the instinct to xenophobia from this body politic, and restore the optimism and openness that once were hallmarks of the American character.