9/11 Was a Warning of What Was to Come

It was the first sign that the 21st century would be a period of shock and disaster.

Illustration with blue rectangle at top left and red/white vertical stripes, in which 2 white bars and a cloud of smoke form the shape of the World Trade Center
Illustration by Paul Spella; image by Henny Ray Abrams / AFP / Getty

This article was published online on August 10, 2021.

September 11 is buried so deep under layers of subsequent history and interpretation that it’s hard to sort out the true feelings of that day. But I remember one image with indelible clarity. It’s the face of a young woman in a color photograph on a flyer that appeared at the entrance to my subway stop in Brooklyn, around my neighborhood, and then all over the city. WE NEED YOUR HELP, the flyer said.

Giovanna ‘Gennie’ Gambale
27 years old 5’6”
Brown hair, brown eyes Last seen on 102nd fl of World Trade Center …
Call with any information.

The sign was posted right after the attacks and stayed up long after it stopped being an urgent request to locate a missing person who might be wandering through the ashes of Lower Manhattan, and became a tribute to a lost daughter. The early hours and days were like that. The facts were incomprehensible. How many people died, how many survived, did any survive? When would the next attack come? Who had done it, and why?

Through most of September 12 and 13, I waited to give blood with other New Yorkers in a long sidewalk line. “I volunteered so I could be a part of something,” an unemployed video producer named Matthew Timms told me. “I’ve been at no point in my life when I could say something I’ve done has affected mankind. Like, when the news was on, I was thinking, What if there was a draft? Would I go? I think I would.” A teenager named Amalia della Paolera was passing out cookies. “This is the time when we need to be, like, pulling together and doing as much as we can for each other,” she said, not “sitting at home watching it on TV and saying, like, ‘Oh, there’s another bomb.’ ”

Only on the second day did we begin to understand that there would not be any need for our blood, and even then no one left the line until we were told to go home.

The presence of other people—vigils around melted candle wax on the Brooklyn Heights promenade, crowds at barricades on Canal Street offering foil-covered pots of food to rescue workers—was all that made the days bearable. Safe and hypercivilized people in cities like New York are generally embarrassed by expressions of strong feeling—irony comes more naturally. But right after September 11, strangers on the subway would fall into intense conversations for six minutes, embrace, then never see each other again.

I remember Gennie Gambale because of her smile, which was radiant. Its light exposed the enormity of the crime. The hijackers had set out to end her life as she went about her morning in the heart of a great city. If they could have killed 30,000 human beings, or 3 million, they would have done it greedily. She would be 47 years old today. The youngest victim, a toddler on United Flight 175, would be 22. The lives scarred, destroyed, or prevented from ever existing by the murder of 2,977 people must number in the hundreds of thousands. It’s impossible to understand what America got wrong after September 11—the panic, the hubris, the lies, the endless wars, the two decades of national deterioration—without first letting that knowledge jam hard roots into the psyche.

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One-third of Americans alive today were children or not yet born on September 11, 2001. What, they must wonder, was it all about?

During the 10 years between the end of the Cold War and the terror attacks, the United States enjoyed a level of power, wealth, and safety that—except perhaps for Britain in the years before World War I—has no parallel in history. “Where do you want to go today?” asked a Microsoft commercial. Heady confidence and flabby comfort characterized a decade of rising stock prices and accelerating microprocessors. The information economy seemed to have repealed the business cycle. The U.S. could go to war with cruise missiles and without suffering casualties. Americans didn’t have to worry that we might wake up one morning to rubble and corpses in our streets. The unipolar decade licensed us to waste an entire year on Oval Office sex. In the 2000 election, a lot of people voted, or failed to vote, as if it didn’t really matter who was president. So much power, so little responsibility.

September 11 dissolved this dream of being exempt from history. It had been a childish dream, and its end forced many Americans, perhaps for the first time, to consider the rest of the world. That morning, an investment banker escaped Ground Zero and staggered uptown into a church in Greenwich Village, where he began to shake and sob. A policeman put a hand on his shoulder and said, “Don’t worry, you’re in shock.” The banker replied, “I’m not in shock. I like this state. I’ve never been more cognizant in my life.”

We had not been thinking about the hijackers, but they had been thinking about us. For almost a decade, radical Islamists had been trying to get America’s attention—declaring war on U.S. citizens; bombing our embassies, ships, and the World Trade Center itself—with little success. President Bill Clinton lobbed long-range missiles at jihadist training camps, impressing almost no one; the phrase wag the dog entered the lexicon. When the name al-Qaeda surfaced on September 11, very few Americans had even heard it before. The strategy of asymmetric warfare was unfamiliar, the enemy’s goals opaque.

The late Lynne Stewart, a left-wing lawyer who defended clients accused of terrorism, before going to prison herself for providing them with material aid, once told me that the people in the towers “never knew what hit them. They had no idea that they could ever be a target for somebody’s wrath, just by virtue of being American. They took it personally. And actually, it wasn’t a personal thing … In a war or in an armed struggle, people die.”

The attacks brought a new thing into the world. Americans, jolted into alertness, were given the burden of understanding it. “Everything has changed,” the pundits said. But the challenge to think and act anew is daunting. When it came to interpreting and answering the attacks, most of our political and thought leaders took refuge in familiar scripts. Three were particularly influential.

One argued that the attacks were chickens coming home to roost, a punishment, maybe even cosmic justice, for American deeds abroad—in Susan Sontag’s words of that same week, “a consequence of specific American alliances and actions.” A new term, blowback, became popular. Stewart took it a heartless step further: All Americans were fair game in a war against imperialism. This view implied that, if the U.S. would just stop doing certain things, the attacks would also stop.

A second script saw America as the entirely innocent party. All that was evil (them) was trying to destroy all that was good (us). The conflict was indeed a war, a war over freedom; American military and moral power, both nearly boundless, would eventually vanquish freedom’s sworn enemies. This was George W. Bush’s view (who was president turned out to matter a lot). The key phrase was moral clarity, which in practice became a policy of belligerence that soon fractured our national unity and eventually alienated most of the world.

A third script fell between or outside the first two: America, for all its flaws, had an obligation to support democracy and human rights, even if this meant using the 82nd Airborne Division to attempt nation-building in Afghanistan and regime change in Iraq. September 11 gave rise to the idea that security at home depended on the spread of democratic values in the Muslim world. This was the view of liberal interventionists—including me, before I began reporting from Iraq in 2003—and it suffered from the illusion that war and power politics could be fitted to humanitarian ends.

In one way or another, all three of these views continued the dream of the 1990s. They put America at the center of the story. They assumed that the U.S. could will peace or destruction—that other countries and people weren’t quite real.

There were better responses, ones that showed intellectual modesty in the face of a new kind of war and a new kind of politics. As jihadist attacks became global and quotidian, in Madrid and Mumbai and Boston and Paris and Orlando, these responses warned against both overreaction and underestimation. They tried to comprehend radical Islamism on its own terms—not as a mechanical reflex against U.S. foreign policy, nor as the reincarnation of Nazi Germany, but as a potent ideology nourished by the repressive politics of a region with its own complex relation to both imperialism and modernity. These responses counseled that a contest of ideas would achieve more in the long term than air strikes.

They never got much of a hearing. Instead, American leaders fell into the jihadists’ trap and embarked on an undefined, unwinnable War on Terror, while imagining, as Bush declared, that “it will end in a way and at an hour of our choosing.”

The years after September 11 plunged us into the rough stream of history. Shock after shock followed that first one: the militarization of the homeland; the Iraq War, with its early arrogance and prolonged agony; the use of torture, which undermined Bush’s every high-flown phrase; the financial crisis, which destroyed Americans’ wealth and trust in the system; the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and the rise of right-wing populism in America; Donald Trump’s frantic assaults on democracy; and the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed well over 200 times as many Americans as the terrorist attacks did.

In light of this history, September 11 wasn’t a sui generis event coming out of a clear blue sky. It was the first warning that the 21st century would not bring boundless peace and prosperity. Al‑Qaeda was less a primitive throwback to the Middle Ages than an augury of the anti-liberal politics and virulent nationalism that would soon reach around the world, even to America, where the hijackers once aimed their blows.

And yet they didn’t win. After dominating geopolitics in the years following September 11, radical Islamism has, for now at least, receded as a strategic threat. It is no longer normal to hear of mass-casualty suicide bombings in Baghdad and Peshawar, or East African shopping malls turned into shooting galleries, or vans driven into European crowds. Nothing close to the scale of September 11 has occurred on American soil in the past 20 years. During that period, the U.S. spent about $3 trillion on counterterrorism. Some of that money now seems well spent. Recognizing what truly protected us is as important as rejecting what only failed and shamed us.

Gennie Gambale is buried in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery. The remains of 78 others murdered on the same day lie near her. Two decades after September 11, we’re no longer those Americans who believed such things would never happen to us, and who, when they did happen, went boldly overseas to rid the world of monsters. Experts now see white-nationalist terrorism as a greater domestic threat than Islamist terrorism. The new fight is for our own democracy. It will require all the restraint and purpose and wisdom that we struggled to muster when the enemy wasn’t us.

This article appears in the September 2021 print edition with the headline “The 9/11 Century.”