Do the lessons of 9/11 still apply in a post-COVID world?

Much has changed since the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. But the fight for liberal values against totalitarian foes continues.

An aerial view showing a small portion of where the World Trade Center collapsed six days after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Credit: U.S. Navy Photo by Chief Photographer's Mate Eric J. Tilford.
An aerial view showing a small portion of where the World Trade Center collapsed six days after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Credit: U.S. Navy Photo by Chief Photographer's Mate Eric J. Tilford.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

For some of us, it seems like it happened yesterday. For others, the 9/11 attacks are ancient history or just a meme about an event that doesn’t resonate with their concerns.

It’s been 19 years since the 9/11 attacks and, as many of us feared, the commemorations of this trauma are beginning to seem routine rather than a moment of shared mourning. With the passage of years, what is for many of us still seen as a life-changing moment has become nothing more than a date in the history books with no more relevance to the lives of those who came to maturity after it than that of a Civil War battle.

That is especially true this year as Americans have undergone a new trauma in the form of a coronavirus pandemic that has altered their lives in ways that 9/11 did not. After all, Americans were empathetic for all that happened in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, but it happened there—not in every town, city and rural part of the United States. Throw in a summer of Black Lives Matter protests and riots that have combined with the economic devastation wrought by the pandemic lockdowns to change the way many of us think about life in our biggest cities, and you can make an argument that the impact of the events of 2020 will be felt just as if not more deeply by Americans as what happened in 2001. The generation that will have lived through the COVID crisis and racial unrest may well carry the fear of infection with them for their rest of their lives, much as many of those who lived through the Great Depression never lost their dread of poverty.

The main point to be derived from this observation is that what seemed important to thinking people in the aftermath of 9/11 no longer has as much resonance. Events and the passage of time have reduced the justified concern about Islamist terrorism to a caricature or conspiracy theories.

For all too many Americans, 9/11 is no longer a day of mourning and remembrance. That was illustrated by the fact that on the morning of the 19th anniversary of the murder of thousands of Americans the leading trend on Twitter was the hashtag #AllBuildingsMatter. The tweets associated with that meme showed the burning Twin Towers—but to mock the event, not to commemorate it. The point of those using this despicable meme was to compare critiques of the Black Lives Matter movement that spoke of “All Lives” mattering. Of course, a rational response would be to say that all mass murders involving attacks on buildings do matter as much as 9/11. But the takeaway from this is not so much that as the way the BLM movement is determined to trivialize or diminish the importance of any event other than those that back up their false narrative about America being an irredeemably racist nation.

That is the way of history. Lessons are learned, unlearned and then relearned with numbing regularity as the generations have passed.

Americans believed that the carnage of World War I required them to stay out of European wars until the folly of appeasing Nazi Germany taught them that vigilance against totalitarians and collective security was vital for their security and that of the world. Decades later, the disaster in Vietnam caused Americans to believe that they had been too worried about not forgetting the lessons of appeasement and had foolishly involved themselves in a bloody conflict in which they had no interest. A generation after Vietnam, the complacency about foreign threats, and especially that from Islamists bent on destroying the West that led to 9/11, became the priority. That consensus was shattered by the bloody quagmire in Iraq and understandable war-weariness about a conflict in Afghanistan that has been dragging on since 2001 without a chance of real victory.

Today, most Americans seem to agree that the belief that the answer to 9/11 was an attempt to spread democracy in the Middle East was as foolish as was intervention in Southeast Asia. Americans no longer have an appetite for endless wars that can’t be won.

What doesn’t change are the essential interests of the United States and the West. And that doesn’t involve so much a specific blueprint for foreign policy as it does the ongoing defense of democracy and the rule of law.

Thanks to the aggressive actions of past administrations, Americans are no longer living in fear of new 9/11-style attacks from Islamists. As a result, few seem to care much about foreign policy except to express fear about other countries trying to intervene in our elections.

Still, the wheel of history doesn’t stop turning just because other issues distract most of us.

As Israelis, who face a threat from Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, know quite well, Islamists are still with us. Their argument with the United States is not about any alleged American sins in the Middle East, but part of the eternal conflict between advocates of totalitarian ideologies and democracies.

For some Americans, the notion of defending democracy is boiled down to their contempt and fear for President Donald Trump. But whatever you may think of him, partisan quarrels that have been hyped into a bitter tribal civil war don’t teach us about what makes us truly vulnerable. Rather, it involves the imperative to defend the basic premises of liberal democracy. That means not just worrying about terror but defending the rights of the individual, including free speech and religious liberty. It involves resisting the impulse to primarily view citizens as members of races, tribes and religions. Those principles are essential not just for liberal democracy, but for the rights of Jews and other religious minorities, as well as to everyone else.

The America of 2020 may be focused on the ongoing pandemic and the debate about racism rather than on remembrance of 9/11 and vigilance against Islamists. Sooner or later, however, whether because of foreign pressures or domestic unrest, democracy will again be imperiled. Like it or not, Americans will be forced to relearn the lessons about the dangers of sleepwalking through history that disarmed them in the past.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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