Opinion 20 years later, Americans kid themselves if they think the war born of 9/11 is over

(Ann Kiernan for The Washington Post)
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Twenty years ago, a few hours after two mighty skyscrapers collapsed into dust, a wise reporter and editor named Glenn Frankel felt his memory leap to a quote from Leon Trotsky, the Russian revolutionary: “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”

The aphorism caught something essential about that horrible day, which began with Americans going blithely about our business and ended, as I wrote numbly, with “the first step down a very dark and dangerous alley” in American history. At Frankel’s suggestion, I used Trotsky’s warning to end my essay.

That sentence has nagged me ever since, as my interest in war — and that of my country — has waxed and waned. What might be different today if we as a nation had been better able to maintain focus, discipline and unity? Remained interested, rather than giving ourselves so freely to distractions and divisions?

Initially, the attack shocked us awake after a long lack of interest. For all the trillions of dollars spent on arms and warriors by the United States after World War II, by the late 1990s, with the Cold War ended, Americans had other things on our minds. The AOL stock price and the president’s lechery, for example. Market liberalism was ascendant globally. Trade would cure the bloodlust and power plays of the past. We would make sales, not war.

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A radical Saudi millionaire, Osama bin Laden, sought our attention with his “Declaration of War Against the Americans,” published in London in 1998. He followed with attacks on two U.S. embassies. We slumbered on.

War was interested in us. And for a time after that cerulean-skied Tuesday morning in September 2001, Americans mustered a keen interest in return. Idealistic young people signed up for the military. For the rest of us, expressing our interest was more awkward. Near obvious terrorist targets, families prepared safe rooms in their basements. We supplied grade school classrooms with disaster go-bags stuffed in colorful little backpacks. People compared evacuation plans over dinner.

A prayer service was held at Washington National Cathedral, a place where, on earlier occasions, Christianity had been served warm and mild, heavy on shepherding and healing, with nary a smidgen of wrath. Congregants closed that day with the martial strains of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” the great organ rumbling with anger and righteousness, timpani pounding out fateful lightning. Let us die to make men free!

It was not to be that sort of war, however. On the day Frankel remembered Trotsky’s warning, I tried to understand a war in which passenger jets became guided missiles and office towers blazing battlefields. Who was the enemy? How would we know? We were thrown, as I wrote then, into a “Gray War, a war without fronts, without armies, without rules.” As the years passed, it proved also to be a war without strategy, without candor, with too little shared national purpose.

People scoffed when a president said civilians could help the war effort by going shopping. Yet there was a kernel of truth in his remark. Our principal weapon in this gray war — gray interrupted by gruesome bursts of scarlet — has been money. We have loosed a fateful charge card. Billions for security at buildings around the world. More billions to harvest the world’s communications and comb the data for warnings. Still more billions to buy help from among the planet’s least reliable sources. Adding up to trillions for a war of whack-a-mole.

Most of the time, this war has felt like war only to the few, the deployed: the special operators, the contractors, the diplomats, the spies, the data analysts at their glowing screens, the drone pilots in their darkened rooms hunting the enemy by satellite link.

For the rest, it has felt like mom’s birthday, finals week, the playoffs, just another April. At intervals we were jolted to attention — and then for a day or a month, we were as interested in war as war was interested in us. The 2003 capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the man who dreamed up 9/11, was such a jolt. Even more, the killing of bin Laden in 2011.

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Between the jolts we might have been keeping up with the Kardashians. We might have been making America great again. We might have been trading bitcoin or disassembling structures of privilege. We might have been defending our freedom to spread disease. In the disunited states of America, our varied and individual interests have been paramount.

But make no mistake: War maintains its unblinking, remorseless interest in us. We kid ourselves (perhaps to death) if we think for a moment the war is over.

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Conspiracy theories blaming George W. Bush for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have been debunked, yet millions of Americans still believe them. (Video: Kate Woodsome, David Byler/The Washington Post)