Our Best Stuff From a Week of Remembrance

How we’ve changed in the two decades since 9/11.

“Everything is going to be different now.” That’s the one thing I remember my husband saying as he and I stared at the television in the living room of our home in the Seattle area on that fateful morning two decades ago. A phone call from my brother in Ohio had woken us at 6:30, and when Jim immediately reached for the TV remote, dread set in. Had there been a natural disaster? Had the president been shot? The idea of an attack on U.S. soil never entered my mind. 

He was right, of course. In ways that were obvious immediately, and in ways that didn’t become apparent until much later. The unity and shared sense of purpose were a welcome change, albeit a fleeting one. The increased security around air travel (however necessary in the moment) was less so, on both counts. I remember the constant, low-grade fear of another attack. I say “low-grade” in that it felt inevitable, but we mostly didn’t change our behavior. People still woke up everyday and boarded planes or went to work in skyscrapers. 

That perseverance reflected a kind of optimism. But one thing I find myself thinking about these days is our collective grief. We came to know the stories of so many individuals who lost their lives that day. Not just the heroes who stormed the cockpit on Flight 93 or the firefighters who led people to safety before going into the towers one last time and never returning. We also learned about everyday Americans, from finance professionals and advertising executives to waiters and janitors, who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. We came to know the widows and widowers of those who died, the children who lost parents. We grieved, and we felt a sense of duty to honor them.  

I’m thinking about that mourning because we are living through a pandemic that has killed more Americans than the Civil War. And I just don’t sense that same sense of shared grief. There are some obvious reasons for it: The attacks of 9/11 were sudden and shocking. Civilians were targeted in an act of war. And it was an isolated incident, not a situation where people were dying every day for a year and a half. 

Still, I think it reflects an unfortunate reality in this country. Our social fabric has frayed to the point where we don’t grieve for strangers. In fact, we have often politicized their deaths. There’s an undertone of “told ya so” to the coverage every time a politician or media figure who fought against lockdowns dies of COVID. I understand why media outlets have taken to highlighting the stories of those who, while in the hospital fighting for their lives, express regret over not getting vaccinated. But I feel like those stories serve only to make their intended audience of vaccine holdouts more defensive. 

I wonder, if we had even the kind of unity we had in the days after 9/11, if our pandemic response would have been different. Yes, we were pretty good in the early months of lockdowns. And it’s true the strictest measures weren’t sustainable in the long term. We were let down by our political leaders. But I do wish we’d treated the virus as a common enemy, as we did al-Qaeda two decades ago. That we had come together to fight it rather than fighting each other.  Yes, everything is different now. And that’s too bad.

On that cheery note, here’s some of our best work from the week. Thanks for reading.

9/11 Was Never Going to Unite Us for Long

David recalls how, initially, the events of September 11, 2001, seemed like his generation’s Pearl Harbor. That it wasn’t was a good thing—“after all, Pearl Harbor marked the beginning of a far more deadly war”—but it also meant that the national unity we felt in the early days also dissipated more quickly. And just because jihadists didn’t present the same kind of military threat as the Axis powers didn’t mean they were harmless. “Though jihadists could never threaten our civilization, they could hurt us and hurt us badly. And if they hurt us enough, they’d change our nation in important and profoundly negative ways. There remained and remains an absolute necessity of national self-defense.”

Taliban 1.0, Chapter 2

For the last month or so, ever since we started getting hints that the Afghanistan withdrawal was going to happen but that it would also likely be chaotic, the statements coming from the Biden administration have been at odds with reality. And, frankly, Jonah is fed up. In his Wednesday G-File, he takes the State Department and other Biden officials to task for their stupefying statements, from “We have made clear our expectation that the Afghan people deserve an inclusive government” to the Taliban-led government being made up of “people who have very challenging track records” to the claim that what the Taliban really wants is acceptance from the international community. As he reminds everyone, “No one in the Taliban leadership has been living in the mountains, crapping in caves without the benefit of first world toilet paper, and letting their sons vaporize themselves so they can get reserved tickets to hear Larry Summers’ presentation at Davos.”

The Biden Administration and the Paradox of the Weak

The chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal was bad enough on its own. And however eager the Biden administration might be to move on, it’s going to have repercussions far beyond the region. Eric Edelman and Robert Joseph offer a detailed—and bleak—analysis of how our deficiencies will be exploited by our enemies: not just China and Russia but also North Korea and Iran. “The colossal policy failure that was punctuated by the heroic efforts of U.S. military and diplomatic personnel to evacuate U.S. citizens and Afghan allies from Kabul will in fact make reposturing to deter China more difficult. It is likely that more military capability will now need to be devoted to the counterterrorism mission with a revivified global jidhadist movement highly motivated by its successful defeat of the United States,” they write.

Now for the best of the rest:

  • Audrey Fahlberg spent the summer on a fellowship for the Wall Street Journal, but we’re thrilled she’s back. Check out her story about the Wyoming GOP primary and Donald Trump’s decision to endorse a former Liz Cheney supporter in the race against her.

  • South Dakota Republicans are trying to ban private vaccine mandates, but they aren’t getting any support from Gov. Kristi Noem. The fight centers around differing concepts of “liberty.” Andrew explains.

  • The U.S. government failed to deliver on its promise to evacuate Americans and the Afghans who helped our war effort, but private citizens are still working tirelessly. Charlotte details the challenges they are facing.

  • About 10 years ago, some of our leaders softened their views on the Taliban. That change in viewpoint ultimately doomed our mission in Afghanistan, Tom Joscelyn writes.

  • On the pods: Sen.Ben Sasse holds nothing back in his critique of the Biden administration’s Afghanistan policy in an interview with Steve and Sarah on The Dispatch Podcast. David and Sarah discuss the latest in the legal battle over the Texas abortion law as well as the indictment of a prosecutor in the Ahmaud Arbery case on Advisory Opinions. And on The Remnant, Jonah and Slate’s Will Saletan keep finding themselves agreeing more than they disagree.