I've been thinking about the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 for some time now.
It's been hard not to - the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan has led to a lot of talk about the war, the history, the causes, the mistakes made.
I wrote my story of September 11th down back in 2006, on the 5th anniversary. Call that the first, or maybe second, draft of history. Because the facts are easy, but putting them in context is harder. The Washington Post has a retrospective which does a good job of laying out the context over the next 20 years, full of righteous fury and wild missteps. As the article notes, "By 2004, when the 9/11 Commission urged America to 'engage the struggle of ideas,' it was already too late; the Justice Department’s initial torture memos were already signed, the Abu Ghraib images had already eviscerated U.S. claims to moral authority." Others assert we lost earlier, like former FBI intelligence office Ali Soufan, who said "We lost the war in Afghanistan, in my opinion, in the fall of 2002. That's when the administration of George W. Bush started shifting a lot of important resources to prepare for the Iraq war at a time when al-Qaida and the Taliban were regrouping in Afghanistan."
Regardless of when the United States lost the war, it definitely did. We went out exactly on-brand - our last drone strike in Afghanistan killed an innocent aid worker and nine members of his family. Ironically (or not), he was working for an American company.
Our misadventures spanned Democratic and Republican presidencies, and today, 20 years on, many of the same people are in power. CNN published a story today of Joe Biden's memories of September 11th. He was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the time.
I remember a speaker at LSE making the point that American foreign policy had remained basically the same since 9/11 - this was during the Trump administration, and it blew my mind. But if the people all remain the same, how can we expect different outcomes?
It would be nice if we could, as former President Bush tried to do in his speech today, only remember the wonderful humanity Americans and people around the world showed in the aftermath. Stories like that of Gander, Newfoundland, where an entire town turned out to help people stranded by the grounding of all flights. And all the individual stories of people helping people.
But of course we also have to remember the racism that started on day one, like that experienced by Dr. Sofia Jawed-Wessel who related on twitter that "The morning of 9/11, my political science professor made me leave class so the other students could 'grieve and process safely'." She wore a hijab, and was thus, instantly, the enemy.
A few years ago, my wife and I started watching NCIS, starting with the first season. We were horrified to be reminded of how racist, sexist, etc. we all had been such a short time ago.
And now, of course, we have a pandemic. We're on our way to 700K deaths in the United States (as a reminder, there were 2,996 killed on September 11th). A friend asked on twitter which date we will choose to commemorate the pandemic. And just like September 11th, the pandemic has revealed things good and bad about our country, and about humanity in general.
September 11th changed the world, and it didn't - we remain profoundly changed, and yet, in some underlying ways both good and terrible, exactly the same as we always were. 20 years on, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see the good and the bad more clearly, and yet present day events demonstrate in perfect detail that we have not yet learned all the lessons we needed to.