Thoughts on the Twentieth Anniversary of 9/11

Photo by Jin S. Lee
Director of Photography
9/11 Memorial & Museum

By Chris Ricchetti | 11 September 2021

America has been attacked, and it has been changed. This is the first great test of the new century for this nation, for its new president. It’s also a great test for us all—wherever we live, whatever our age, whatever our beliefs.

These were the words of NBC Nightly News anchor, Tom Brokaw, on the evening of September 11, 2001. He could not have known how portentous his words would prove to be.

The months between 9/11 and the end of 2001 were magical. For a fleeting moment, we were unified by the shared sadness of a common tragedy. People across the country were warmer and kinder, more patient, and more respectful. We were less competitive, noticeably less selfish, and more willing to help each other. For a few short months, the small irritations of daily living did not set us off. We simply let them go. Everyone, it seemed, was a little more human—more accepting of our own humanity, and more tolerant of the humanity of others. It was the kind of awakening that only grief can inspire.

As a country, we were unified. And the free world was with us. Only weeks after the Supreme Court had summarily delivered the 2000 election to George W. Bush, even I, for a moment, was willing to set aside the bitterness of electoral defeat and to rally around the President. Scores of Democrats joined with their Republican colleagues in calling for solidarity.

By October, we were in Afghanistan, where the US-led military coalition swiftly dealt a crippling blow to those who had attacked us (al-Qaeda) and toppled the de facto government of Afghanistan that had given them aid (Taliban). The Taliban fled to Pakistan, where they would regain the confidence to fight us again, while the remaining al-Qaeda scattered. We pursued them wherever they congregated, in many other places around the globe.

That wasn’t good enough for the “neo-cons” who postulated that we could re-make Afghanistan in the image of New Jersey. And we naively set out to do just that. It’s a mistake we repeatedly make—believing that it is within our power to control the political aspirations of entire populations.

Then Dick Cheney seized upon the opportunity to realize a whole portfolio of his own, personal ambitions, at the expense of military families and American taxpayers—not to mention hundreds of thousands of Iraqi casualties, and the de-stabilization of the Middle East that has been catastrophic for the entire world. Knowing that Saddam Hussein had ordered the attempt to kill Bush’s father in 1993, it must have been easy for Cheney to sell the invasion of Iraq to the President. Likely, war in Iraq was already on Bush’s agenda, as we know it was on Cheney’s, well before 9/11 provided them a pretext.

The Bush Administration, aided by the CIA, undertook an aggressive campaign to manufacture public support for another war. To achieve this, they deployed an arsenal of bald-faced lies: that Iraq played a role in the 9/11 attacks, that Iraq had a robust chemical and biological weapons program, including large stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, and that Iraq had procured uranium from Niger and was on the brink of becoming a nuclear power—a rationale for war that the honest-by-nature General Colin Powell had trouble delivering to the UN Security Council with a straight face.

In October 2002, the Congress authorized[1] the President to use military force, if necessary, to compel Iraq’s compliance with its obligations under the cease-fire agreement of 1991 and numerous subsequent UN Security Council resolutions. Bush had “pinky promised” to pursue every possible diplomatic effort first, and to use our military might only as a last resort. Within five months, the full spectrum of diplomatic possibilities had apparently been exhausted, because Bush-Cheney ordered the invasion of Iraq. How dare they destroy so many lives under false pretenses.

In the ten-year period that followed, Halliburton stock performed three times better than the S&P 500.

It took less than a month to oust the Ba’athist regime of Saddam Hussein and to set up a provisional government. But we stuck around for another decade, certain that we could inspire Iraq’s three belligerent ethno-religious groups to set aside ancient hatreds and come together to form their own liberal democracy. Because we are that exceptional. Heck, if Donald Rumsfeld was to be believed, we could even do it on a budget!

Down the rabbit hole we went, in pursuit of a staggeringly expensive conflict[2] that made us less safe, more isolated, and less free.

Bush did not have it in him to meet the challenge of his era—to channel the fleeting spirit of unity, tolerance, and compassion that pervaded after 9/11 toward any positive ends. He squandered the goodwill and good faith that arose from our collective suffering in that magic moment. And we let him. We were all participants in the Grand Distractions that allowed that spirit of brother-and-sisterhood to go back into hibernation.

Since January 2020, we Americans have been dealing with a new collective sadness. COVID-19 has upended our way of life, killed hundreds of thousands of us, and scarred millions more with permanent health problems. This time, no magic moment of unity has arisen from our grief. This time, a global tragedy deepened our national divisions and hastened the unraveling of American society that was already under way. There are many reasons for it and plenty of blame to go around, but what’s different this time is that the nation is in a very different emotional state than we were on 9/11.

The chaos, the over-the-top intensity, and the utter irrationality of our public discourse, the literal insanity of it, our extreme villainization and dehumanization of each other, our intractable stubbornness—all are clear signs that we are acting out of our most primitive emotions. Individually and as a society, we have regressed to the bottom of our brain stems—to the amygdala, where we marinate continuously in fear and rage. We are no longer thinking, and our emotional repertoire is constrained. Hence the emergence of “alternative facts.”

It is well established in the field of neuropsychology that humans are incapable of thinking clearly or cogently in this hyper-aroused state. Nor can we feel the distinctively human emotions of empathy and compassion. In survival mode, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is believed to modulate empathy, defers to the amygdala—essentially going “offline” until the perceived existential threat has passed. Under the constant influence of social media algorithms and other opportunistic media, many of us now spend most of our time “on edge” in basic survival mode. Almost all of us spend far too much time there.

The “Two Americas” hold vastly different views of what America means and what it means to be American. We cherish our respective conceptions of America with the same mix of reverence, tenderness, devotion, and love that we bestow upon our children, our partners, and members of our families. We may articulate “reasons” for loving the people that we love. We may think deeply about how to put our love into practice. We may make cognitive commitments that sustain our cherished connections as emotions inevitably wax and wane. But at their root, these attachments are purely emotional—as is our love for our country.

We are evolutionarily and biologically wired to respond aggressively to anyone we perceive as threatening to someone we cherish. This extends to whatever subgroup of our fellow citizens we perceive to be enemies of the America we love. We are stuck in attack mode, and we are getting stuck-er every day.

The situation does seem hopeless. It is certainly not sustainable. It would be entirely reasonable to conclude that Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have won Round 2 of the Cold War by a knockout.

On the other hand, given the primal impulses at work and the media forces keeping the combatants on each side marching in unison, one of the more astonishing features of the era is that we have not already erupted into all out civil war. Maybe we are a ticking time bomb. Maybe we are not. Time will tell, as time always does.

In the meantime, as Sting so eloquently puts it, “Men go crazy in congregations. They only get better one by one.” Lasting societal progress begins at the individual level. Our hope for salvation lies in improving both our collective capacity for critical thinking and our collective emotional intelligence—one individual at a time.

Reason alone cannot save us. It never has. We have been thinking without drawing upon the powerful perceptions of our emotional brains for most of the time we have existed on this planet. If reason alone could lead us to the Truth, the smartest among us would already have agreed on everything. Disagreements between equally “smart” people generally have their basis in unconscious emotions that filter out certain data, assign significance to other data, and shape the workings of the rational mind. If we were all processing the same information in the same way (i.e., via “pure” thought), we would all come to the same conclusions.

The challenge we face as a nation is fundamentally emotional. There will be no thinking our way out of this. We can try to engage in rational debate. We can pretend that articulating our “reasons” will persuade others to support our positions. But a good-faith exchange of views is not possible when “people like YOU are destroying MY America!” Compromise and working through areas of disagreement are obviously out of the question.

This is why our social media rants never change any minds, and why there is no longer any actual debate in the purported “greatest deliberative body in the world,” the United States Senate.

In the face of a fundamentally emotional problem, greater emotional awareness, maturity, and sophistication are the way through. There is no getting around the fact that a critical number of us must be willing—and make the effort—to learn how better to navigate the landscape of our emotions for there to be any meaningful change on a societal level.

Sing along with me now… “Men go crazy in congregations; they only get better one by one. One by one.”


  1. On October 10, 2002, the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002 passed the House by a vote of 296-133. It passed the Senate by a vote of 77-23, the following day.

  2. Since 9/11, annual “defense” spending has more than doubled. With minimal oversight and much of it unaccounted for, we’ve spent nearly $5 trillion prosecuting the War on Terrorism. All of it—yes, ALL of it—was borrowed money. We owe $2 trillion more in military pension benefits. This gargantuan waste has been a windfall for defense contractors who collect nearly half of the Pentagon’s budget, year after year. Throughout this period, there have been more contractor employees than military personnel on the ground. In recent years, there have been twice as many. Over the past twenty years, defense stocks, including LMT, BA, GD, RTX, and NOL, have outperformed the S&P 500 by about 60%.