This newspaper is published on Thursdays, but I write these columns on the weekend before it comes out. I am writing this one on Sunday, Sept. 11.
Like many of us, I’ve spent much of this day remembering the horrors of that awful event 21 years ago. In addition to the shock and outrage everyone in the country felt, I was also struck that day with an eerie sense of déjà vu: having lived in New York City little more than a decade earlier, I had been in those buildings and, even more often, the plaza below them.
I was also struck by a strong feeling that the terrorists had made a huge miscalculation. I was reminded of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which they thought would cripple and demoralize America but which instead unified the country as never before. As I watched the screen, I muttered aloud a WWII-era quote about the Japanese: “They have awakened a sleeping giant.”
It appeared I was correct. The whole country seemed to pull together, to put aside racial, religious, and political differences with a determination to shine through (with a notable exception, which I’ll discuss in a moment). Those of us old enough to remember that day remember that feeling, which lasted for months. It was as beautiful a feeling as the day was horrendous.
But it didn’t last. And it seemed that when we did tear apart from each other again, it was far worse than it had been before 9/11… and seems to worsen with each passing year, until we’ve become divided to the point of violent rhetoric occasionally bursting into violent actions. At the very least, we are at each other’s throats ideologically far more than we used to be. With the hindsight of years of study since then, I have begun to understand why.
What was Osama Bin Laden trying to accomplish? He was striking against the symbols of American hegemony. Hegemony is defined by three things: the most powerful economy, the most powerful military, and the dominating political system. What were the three targets on 9/11? The World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the Capitol (or maybe the White House - we’ll never know). But his plans were more than just symbolic, they were practical.
Remember, the Russians invaded Afghanistan, in 1980, and spent the rest of the decade at war there (it has been called their Vietnam). Bin Laden was one of many Muslims (called mujahedeen) who came to fight there against the Russians (often trained and equipped by the U.S.) By forcing the USSR into a quagmire that overextended their resources and lost the support of their people, the mujahedeen played a large role in causing the collapse of the Soviet Union, one of the two world powers.
And Bin Laden planned to do the same thing to the other world power, us. By provoking us into an ideological, resource-draining, endless, unwinnable war that would cripple our economy and divide our people. I used to think, “Wow, it almost worked!”
But now I’m not so sure it didn’t.
There was a fissure immediately after 9/11: Americans began to persecute Muslim citizens. Or citizens they thought LOOKED Muslim, like Sikhs from India or Coptic Christians from Egypt. Or anyone dark. Or any non-white immigrant. Or anyone that scared them by looking or thinking differently - because we all WERE scared, very scared, on an existential level. And, as I pointed out last week, when we are scared, we behave irrationally and turn on each other. The fear took hold on 9/11 and has snaked out its tendrils into every part of our lives.
It was a terror attack.
We are still in terror, and we are attacking each other. Twenty-one years down the line, we are in danger of tearing our country apart and handing the ghost of Bin Laden the very victory he hoped for.
--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.
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