It has been 20 years since 9/11, and I cannot help but let my mind think back to that day. I was nowhere near the Twin Towers when they were hit, had no family or friends trapped inside. Still, I recall going home early that day to watch the coverage. I doubt I will ever clear from my head the vision of those who leapt from thousands of feet to plummet to their deaths. The trauma felt across the nation, throughout the world, was as thick as the debris cloud.
I am of the opinion that 9/11 was our Reichstag fire, the event that led many Germans to give up their freedoms and turn toward authoritarianism prior to World War II. I say this not in the sense of who was involved in the terrorist attack, but in the sense of where we have allowed ourselves to go as a nation in the aftermath. In the months and years after the attack, when our political leaders were rallying around revenge and trying to change the term French fries into freedom fries, many others in government were quickly creating the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
I had heard of this new department back in the beginning of 2001, many months before 9/11. The Hart-Rudman report had been circulating in the Border Patrol intelligence units at the sector level. I was hard at work trying to blow the whistle on my narcotics-smuggling boss when I read it. Not being trained or educated in foreign terrorism, I tossed it aside thinking the choice to use the term homeland sounded too authoritarian to me.
Right or wrong, the DHS was created from the ashes of 9/11. Billions of dollars were spent creating new agencies and positions, realigning existing law enforcement agencies, militarizing our police and criminalizing asylum seekers. New laws were passed that allowed these agencies to quietly gather intelligence on not only foreign adversaries but on American citizens as well. This activity was all justified under the banner of needing to prevent another 9/11.
For all those with good intentions, many more were willing to take advantage of our collective trauma. Anti-immigrant hate groups were suddenly labeled as experts in immigration policy and testified before Congress repeatedly, reshaping our policies into systemic brutality. We invaded countries and killed hundreds of thousands of people who had nothing to do with 9/11, and we closed our borders, becoming more agoraphobic about the world around us. White supremacists, no longer content to wear white robes and light crosses on fire, took advantage and joined police departments in droves as their unions demanded more power and less culpability.
We have not become a military state like so many had feared after 9/11. Our Reichstag fire, the events of 9/11, brought authoritarianism in the form of police. We are a police state. It is the police that are controlling this country. Our political leaders have lost control: no politician can hold them accountable when babies die in their custody; no mayor can get them to make arrests when election workers are threatened; no governor can feel protected when their state troopers refuse to defend their state Capitol; no president or congressional member can make it stop when they see police taking selfies with insurgents.
This is who we are. The surge in blatant racism, xenophobia and misogyny was not brought to our shores by the terrorists. It already existed. 9/11 merely traumatized us long enough to allow white supremacists and corrupt individuals to become powerful within police agencies, in the court systems and in our legislative bodies.
To overcome this, we must admit our failings as a nation. We must recognize our racism, our xenophobia, our misogyny. We must admit that for all of our fear and attempts to protect ourselves after 9/11, we have failed. We are not any safer, any healthier, any better than before.
It is the 20th anniversary of 9/11, and I for one think it’s time to change direction.
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