ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. —I was reading on online news page when an alert announced that an airplane had struck the World Trade Center in New York City. I had my suspicions as I moved to the TV in the living room.
Speculation that terrorists were behind the attack became certainty when the second plane hit, yet the horror unfolding before me was not surprising. For several years the counter-terrorist talking heads on the op-ed pages and Sunday morning news shows had been telling the American public that it was “only a matter of time” before al-Qaeda or some other violent Islamic fundamentalist group took their program of terror to U.S. soil. For the matter, al-Qaeda had already attacked the WTC in February 1993 and followed up with numerous other strikes around the world, including U.S. embassy bombings in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in the August 1998 and against a Navy destroyer, the USS Cole, in the Yemeni port of Aden in October 2000. What struck me was how easily the news coverage and a large share of public reaction shifted from disbelief into a narrative of lost innocence.
The American public’s lack of interest and knowledge about anything beyond its borders is legendary, but the public response to the 9/11 attacks required a staggering level of willful ignorance. Osama bin Laden and his compatriots told anyone willing to listen why they perceived the United States to be the leading source of evil for the world’s Muslims. They claimed America bankrolled corrupt governments in predominately Muslim lands, including the brutal dictatorships now under siege in the Middle East. They said the U.S. backed Israel with few reservations, thereby preventing any chance for peace or land settlements for dispossessed Palestinian, mostly Muslims. They pointed to American military bases in Saudi Arabia, the site of Islam’s two holiest cities, from which U.S. fought a limited war and waged siege against Iraq, an overwhelmingly Muslim nation.
Without discussing the truth of charges, they never registered in the American popular imagination. Public memory cherry picks the historical record and in the United States it downplays the nation’s birth in slavery, the decimation of indigenous peoples and the occupation of western lands. It ignores an infancy of intervention in the affairs of the others playing in America’s god-given sandbox of two continental landmasses that almost stretch from pole to pole. It overlooks the “splendid little war” in 1898 against the doddering Spanish empire in which the booty included stepping stones to Asia, the Philippines, Guam, and Hawaii. U.S. public memory extols the victories of World War II and the Cold War in Eurasia, but takes a pass on the bloody proxy wars waged in Africa, central America and southeast Asia, followed by more than a decade as the globe’s unrivaled superpower.
In 2001, if you put aside our colonial and national history and accepted without reservation that the United States was the global beacon of freedom and democracy, then it wasn’t much of a stretch to believe that America had been blindsided by evil incarnate. The perpetrators had to be irredeemably immoral to attack the generous paterfamilias, the reasoning went.
Yes, the Bush administration and its ideological compatriots manipulated post-9/11 fears to support their political ends, but the American public failed too. We allowed the powerful to mold our comprehension of the past, present and future into a child’s fairytale in which stubborn, stupid denial masqueraded itself as innocence.
Afterword: Three days after posting this, I ran across a NY Daily News online series on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and the headline of the first story was "When our innocence was lost forever."