By Tom Robotham 

On the evening of September 10, 2001, I was watching Band of Brothers with my then-8-year-old son. At one point, he asked me if I’d ever been to war.

“No,” I told him. “I was lucky. I missed the Vietnam-War draft by just a couple of years. I hope you never have to go to war.”

“I hope there won’t be anymore wars,” he said. 

The next morning began routinely. After I had a light breakfast and made my kids’ brown-bag lunches for school, I headed off to the Virginia Beach offices of Port Folio Weekly, where I was serving as the editor-in-chief. As I drove down I-264, under brilliant blue skies, NPR reported that a plane had hit one of the towers of New York’s World Trade Center. At that point, the announcer wasn’t even clear on what type of plane it was—a Cessna, perhaps, that had gone awry? 

By the time I got to the office, a second plane had hit the other tower—and the full scope of the horror was beginning to come into focus, though the worst was yet to come. Around 9:30, a friend and contributing Port Folio writer called to talk about what was going on. As we were on the phone, he told me that a third plane had just hit the Pentagon. Initially I thought he was kidding. Don’t get me wrong: He’s not the sort of guy who makes sick jokes; it’s just that the apocalyptic news was breaking more quickly than I could process it. 

I certainly couldn’t focus on work. My first thought was of my mom, who sometimes went to the World Trade Center on weekdays to buy half-price Broadway tickets at a booth they had there. Fortunately, when I called, she picked up right away, and I learned that she was safe and sound. I called my sister as well, who was working in Manhattan but well north of downtown. Then I called my friend Mark, whom I’d known since college. His wife answered, and she was in a state of panic. Mark, a lawyer, had had a court appearance downtown. Worse, she’d asked him to return something to a store right across the street from the Trade Center. 

“He’s not picking up his cell phone,” she said, her voice shaking with terror.

Much to my relief, I heard from Mark a couple of hours later. He’d been on the subway when the first plane hit, but not knowing what had transpired he’d simply been irritated when the train by-passed his stop. When he finally emerged into the daylight, he said, he could see the Towers engulfed in flames and smoke. Then he saw what looked like a human body plummeting from one of the upper stories. 

By noon, after I’d eased my concerns about friends and family, I switched back to editor mode and decided to scrap much of the issue we’d planned for that week. I didn’t know what kind of coverage we could offer from down here, but I knew we had to do something. 

As it happened, one of our contributing writers was in Paris, and he ended up crafting an excellent piece from an international perspective. He’d been in a taxi when the news broke, he reported, and when he arrived at his destination the Parisian cabbie wouldn’t let him pay. 

“We’re all Americans today,” the cabbie said.  

THE SENSE OF UNITY didn’t last long, of course. After France refused to fully endorse Bush’s “war on terror,” right-wing American politicians and their supporters began to vilify the French. By 2003, when Bush and Cheney decided that 9/11 had presented a perfect opportunity to invade Iraq, Republican scapegoating of the French had descended into characteristic idiocy. (Freedom Fries, anyone?) 

The Trump nightmare largely overshadowed the catastrophic effects of the Bush Administration’s foreign policy. But it’s important to remember those effects, which we’re still dealing with. It’s also important to remember that an overwhelming number of spineless Democrats supported his war efforts as well as the insidious “Patriot Act.” Say what you will about the political right, but it’s always been far better at naming things than the left has. If you opposed the Patriot Act, then, by definition, you weren’t a patriot. (Calling George Orwell. Are you there?) 

Meanwhile, hatred of Muslims—as well as Sikhs and anyone else who “looked” Muslim—spread like a virus, and attacks on innocent people by American “patriots” spiked, much as attacks on Asian-Americans did when Covid hit. 

To his credit, Bush denounced such attacks, unlike Trump who tacitly encouraged them with his reckless and racist rhetoric. (Whatever role China might have played in the spread of Covid, I assure you that the Korean guy who owns your neighborhood dry cleaners had nothing to do with it.) 

Bush’s decency relative to Trump’s monstrous behavior, however, doesn’t change the fact that his decision to start a war that had nothing to do with 9/11 launched us on a journey down a very dark road. The invasion of Iraq, after all, carried costs too numerous to count. And for what? It was, as a combat-veteran friend of mine put it recently, a war of greed.

THE WAR IN AFGHANISTAN HAS to be viewed in a different light—and I’ll be the first to admit that foreign policy is far more complicated than I’ll ever fully understand. I wish some of the folks I’ve seen pontificating on social media would recognize their limitations in this regard. Alas, after all hell broke loose in Afghanistan recently, everyone was suddenly a critic. (A favorite recent meme captured this nicely by stating, “I’m bored with being an infectious disease expert; I’ve decided I’m an expert on Afghanistan.”) 

What I do know of Afghanistan is that history should have taught us something. The Soviet Union failed there, after all, in their costly fight against the mujahideen. Moreover, it’s worth remembering that the U.S. backed the mujahideen—which included Osama bin Laden among its most prominent members. If only members of the Reagan Administration had read Frankenstein. 

All of this seems to have been forgotten, which is no surprise, since Americans, collectively, tend to have the historical memory of a gnat. It is now “Biden’s Mess,” as the headline of a guest essay in the “liberal” New York Times put it recently. It is entirely possible that Biden could have handled the latest developments in Afghanistan more skillfully. I don’t know. And neither do most people, no matter how much they fancy themselves armchair generals. 

But it’s not my intent here to defend Biden. What’s on my mind right now are the many legacies of 9/11: the viral spread of anti-Muslim bigotry and, more generally, the politics of fear, which have always been with us in one form or another but which have been amped up over the last 20 years by politicians who realize that if you can keep a populace in terror, you can control it. 

None of this is meant to minimize the horrific events of 9/11. Quite the contrary. For me—as someone who will always identify as a New Yorker—it was deeply personal and profoundly painful. For Americans more broadly, it exposed a degree of national vulnerability that we hadn’t felt beforehand—and it heightened the tension between the desire for freedom and the need for security. Above all, it fundamentally altered the outlook of an entire generation: people who were children at the time and who will forever look at the world in a darker way than their parents and grandparents did. 

The great tragedy—compounding the initial one—is that it has been used time and again for political ends by people who care nothing for the victims. They’ve certainly demonstrated that they don’t care about the surviving first responders who have for two decades suffered from innumerable ailments but have had to fight like hell to get help from Congress. 

Meanwhile, we face a raft of other problems far greater than the threat of radical-Islamic terrorism—climate change, pernicious viruses, gun violence, a growing gap between rich and poor, and ever-increasing socio-political hostilities. 

As I write these words in early September, it occurs to me that I’m not sure how I’ll feel on the anniversary itself. I suspect I’ll feel sadness, but not simply because it will bring back memories of the devastation. The mainstream news media will almost certainly be filled with glossy remembrances set to sentimental soundtracks—retrospectives, in other words, designed to tug at the heartstrings and simplistic feelings of “patriotism,” rather than deep-seated meditations on the meaning of that day. 

With this in mind, I’ll be honoring the victims of the 9/11. But I won’t be doing it with flag-waving. I’ll be thinking of it instead as a symbol of our how fragile the American experiment has become—not because of outside threats but because of our failure to learn the lessons of history.