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Littwin: We haven’t forgotten 9/11, but on the 20th anniversary, we can’t help but see it differently

The failed war on terror, it can be argued, led from 9/11 to Jan. 6, from anti-Muslim fervor to the rise of Trump, the Big Lie and threats to our democracy

The 20th anniversary of the tragedy of 9/11 has been different from all the others. That’s because, after so many years, the lens we’re looking through has changed so dramatically.

On this anniversary, “Never Forget” doesn’t mean simply remembering that day when the buildings fell and nearly 3,000 died, remembering the heroic first responders and the funerals of the decimated NYFD firefighter community, the pit, Ground Zero, the lineup at the New York Armory where relatives would bring a toothbrush, a pair of underwear, anything with enough DNA to help identify either missing persons or, increasingly, parts of those bodies buried and mostly lost under tons of concrete. It means all that, of course, but more.

Mike Littwin

I headed to New York — I worked for the Rocky Mountain News back then — the first day airports reopened, just in time to hear George W. Bush give his megaphone speech at Ground Zero. Months after 9/11, I attended a funeral for one of the firefighters. The family had waited for some part of his body to be recovered. Finally, they had to give up. You don’t forget that. One firefighter’s father — a legendary firefighter in his own right — gave me a tour of a makeshift 9/11 museum where he showed me the gear his son wore on that fateful day from which he never returned. You don’t forget that. Or the tour I took of the pit with one of those leading the recovery effort. Or the one at the sacred ground in Shanksville with the town coroner.

A few days after 9/11, I met a young man, Mike Brady, whose father, Michael Jacobs, was an accountant who died on the 104th floor. Brady was taping a missing poster — he still had some hope — to the fence across from the Armory for his father, who, he told me, hated working at the World Trade Center and wanted, instead, to be a musician. 

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The son was the same age as my daughter. We wept. Together. And 10 years later when I reached him, he told me they had recovered a toe from his father. He also told me he kept his father’s last voicemail and would play it for his two young children so that they would know something of their grandfather. You certainly don’t forget that.

But what’s different this time is that as we remember, we also must assess how much has gone wrong since 9/11. How whatever lessons we might have taken from 9/11 have long since been obscured. How a never-should-have-been-launched, Mission Accomplished war in Iraq was the wrong war in the wrong place. How the security state would come to flourish and never go away. How torture — the “enhanced interrogation” that was straight out of Orwell — would be normalized until, finally, it wasn’t. How the videos from Abu Ghraib, once seen, can never be unseen.

How the national unity that briefly held after the attacks has become mythologized. Nothing changed then. We hit a pause button and then watched as our political divide became ever wider.

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How the chaotic end to the forever war in Afghanistan, how watching a once-defeated Taliban retake its ugly control of the country, led to the conclusion that the so-called War on Terror, with all its attendant losses, not least the many thousands Americans and civilians who died in the fighting, was fought in vain.

A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll showed that 86% of Americans say 9/11 has changed America, but 46% say the change has been for the worse. A year after 9/11, that number was 33%.

One common thread — probably best told in Spencer Ackerman’s book, “Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump” — is the argument that you can draw a line from 9/11 to Jan. 6, from the fall of the towers to Donald Trump, and whether the ill-fated attempt to bring American-style democracy to the countries in which we were fighting would lead to the endangerment of our own democracy.

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In a New York Times op-ed — a CliffsNotes version of the book — Ackerman writes that “Jan. 6 is less a bookend to the Sept. 11 era than a manifestation of it.” He adds that “The war on terror accustomed white Americans to seeing themselves as counterterrorists.” It was these so-called counterterrorists, he says, who saw themselves as patriots when assaulting the Capitol on Trump’s behalf and, in fact, at the president’s behest — the same president, we remember, who lied about watching Muslims in Jersey City celebrating the fall of the towers.

If there is a line, though, it’s not a straight line. It had to travel from Bush and the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, to the surge to rescue a war that couldn’t be rescued, to the election of Barack Obama, who won the Democratic nomination as the antiwar champion but who would be beaten back by the security state, to the racism that was birtherism and the political birth of the man who most exploited it, to the improbability of the election of an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim demagogue whose Big Lie would be accepted by a majority of the Republican Party, a party still in Trump’s thrall.

With a little work, you can even make the line seem to take us to Joe Biden’s latest vaccine push, which some Republican politicians are calling a “power grab,” as if persuading people to get vaccinated empowers anyone but those who get the shots. The unwillingness of a significant minority to get the vaccine or wear masks, particularly in much of red-state America, is less about anti-science than it is about a form of resistance, in which the phony fight for “liberty” replaces the real fight against the pandemic. By the way, Biden’s so-called vaccine mandate for private businesses with more than 100 employees, using OSHA rules to protect workers, is not a vaccine mandate at all, but a get-vaccinated-or-get-tested-weekly mandate. The court cases are beginning even before the rules are written.

Meanwhile, a rally is set in Washington later this month in support of those arrested for assaulting the Capitol. That’s the America we live in. Twenty years after 9/11, in a world still beset by terrorism, the greater threat to America is clearly from domestic terrorists. And that’s something we regularly seem to forget.


Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.


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