Democratic candidates met for a debate one day after the 18th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks. During his opening statement, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, in the 21st-century “West Wing” style he’s both loved and derided for, offered that he’d been “thinking about Sept. 12. The way it felt. When for a moment, we came together as a country. Imagine if we had been able to sustain that unity. Imagine what would be possible right now with ideas that are bold enough to meet the challenges of our time.”
It’s not an uncommon sentiment. Former President Barack Obama tweeted Wednesday that “we also remember the spirit of unity and togetherness that defined the weeks and months after.” But that evocation — anchored on real memories of people lining up to give blood and volunteer to clean up ground zero — also buries the ugly legacy of those attacks. The day after Sept. 11, first responders were still digging bodies out of the rubble of the World Trade Center towers. Some would contract devastating illnesses from exposure to toxins and spend years begging lawmakers to help pay for their health care.
Meanwhile, officials in the highest levels of government made plans to launch new wars and tear away civil liberties protections. Hate and fear drove anti-Muslim hysteria. If you want to know why so many architects of this poisonous legacy currently enjoy comfortable think tank and cable news sinecures, it’s because both parties have chosen to forget just as much as they fondly remember.
It’s true that then-President George W. Bush’s poll numbers rose dramatically after the attacks. It’s true that America’s public square sounded more unified ― in part because media companies moved to sideline or silence voices critical of the administration’s foreign policy. It’s true that people did all sorts of nice things for strangers. There were a lot of American flags.
But that’s not the whole story. The days after Sept. 11 were only unifying from a perspective that doesn’t count whole swaths of Americans as Americans. The flip side of “unity” was paranoia, rage and despair. In the days after the attack, the U.S. government rounded up American Muslims based solely on their religion or their immigration status or how they looked. In the weeks and months after the attacks, the Bush administration moved to lay the groundwork for invading Iraq, a country with no connection to the attacks. On Sept. 12, specifically, Bush told the nation that the acts of terrorism were “acts of war.” That evening, Bush tasked his top counterterrorism adviser, Richard Clarke, with finding a way to connect the attacks to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
“[Bush] told us, ‘I want you, as soon as you can, to go back over everything, everything. See if Saddam did this,’” Clarke would later recall. When Bush’s advisers said the evidence pointed to al Qaeda, a rogue non-state actor, Bush asked for any “shred” of involvement from Saddam, Clarke said.
Sept. 12 was also the day that Attorney General John Ashcroft directed his team at the Justice Department to start working on what would become the Patriot Act, a law that would let the FBI search phone, email and financial records without a court order and authorized the indefinite detention of immigrants and noncitizens.
Many Arab and Muslim Americans didn’t feel the unified America Buttigieg described. “Unlike previous hate crime waves, however, the September 11 backlash distinguished itself by its ferocity and extent,” according to a Human Rights Watch report. “The violence included murder, physical assaults, arson, vandalism of places of worship and other property damage, death threats, and public harassment.”
On Sept. 12, a Pakistani woman named Faiza Ejaz who was waiting outside a mall in Huntington, New York, for a ride from her husband, leaped out of the way of a drunk man driving toward her. As the man followed Ejaz into the mall, where she fled for safety, he yelled that he was “going to kill her” for “destroying [his] country.”
The FBI documented 481 anti-Muslim hate crimes in 2001, up from 28 the previous year. The number of attacks dropped the following years but never as low as pre-Sept. 11 levels. The government’s fearmongering response to the attacks had a lasting effect on Americans’ views toward immigrants. The portion of Americans who favored a decrease in U.S. immigration levels jumped from 41% in June 2001 to 58% in October 2001, according to Gallup polls.
Soon, the long U.S. taboo against torturing prisoners would be violated, too. Weeks after the attacks, an Army intelligence officer who was questioning American Taliban recruit John Walker Lindh was told that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s counsel had “authorized him to ‘take the gloves off’” when conducting interrogations. Lindh was questioned for days while he was naked and tied to a stretcher.
Lindh was released from prison earlier this year. But 18 years after the attacks, the U.S. is still at war in the countries it invaded after Sept. 11 — and killing people in places like Yemen, Syria and Somalia, where al Qaeda spread after the attacks. The offshore prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, still holds men picked up after Sept. 11 who have never been charged with a crime. The five men accused of plotting the attacks won’t stand trial until at least 2021.
Pete Buttigieg doesn’t have to feel nostalgia for the world of Sept. 12. He’s still living in it.