The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

9/11 unleashed a quest to find enemies rather than pursue our common interests

How 9/11 created our current political crisis.

In this Jan. 6, 2021 photo police hold off supporters of Donald Trump who tried to break through a police barrier at the Capitol in Washington. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

For a moment Americans were united by the shock and anger they felt watching the terrorist attacks of 9/11. They still share stories of where they were when the planes hit the twin towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, and they joined to pay tribute to the heroes who brought down Flight 93 in a Pennsylvania field preventing more destruction. But, the connection they sensed that day proved to be short-lived as subsequent events soon deeply divided the nation. A dystopian politics, rooted in fears of one another proliferated. Characterized by a zealous authoritarianism, dystopias seek to govern through fear and substitute enmity for forms of political friendship — and it is this legacy that we must grapple with today.

The assault on America on Sept. 11, 2001, certainly generated a burst of patriotic unity and a popular drive to defend the nation against terrorist attacks. After the cultural wars of the 1990s and the contested election of 2000, Americans were suddenly friends again and intent upon working together for their common defense by jumping into a global war. As President George W. Bush launched military offensives in Afghanistan and Iraq, public opinion polls strongly backed him. Over 80 percent of Americans approved of attacks on Afghanistan and over 60 percent went along with his preemptive strike in Iraq to eradicate weapons of mass destruction.

War fever subsided, however, as casualties mounted in Afghanistan and Iraq, where eventually over 7,000 American soldiers died. When promises of finding destructive weapons that might be used against us in Iraq evaporated the public became more uncertain over how to respond to 9/11. The fear and contempt reserved for terrorists was now directed to a greater extent toward others at home. A quest to find enemies of the people — not the pursuit of our common defense — became an obsession in American politics.

The roots of this quest surfaced immediately after 9/11. Assaults on Arabs, Muslims and South Asians living in the U.S. were widespread. In Dallas, Mark Stroman killed two men and wounded a third just days after 9/11 because he thought they looked like people “of Muslim descent.” Before he was executed, he made it clear that his actions were justified because he was a “proud American” only conducting a plan of revenge. On Sept. 15 in Mesa, Ariz., Frank Roque, seeking vengeance against anyone who wore a turban, killed Balbir Singh Sodhi and took shots at two others, barely missing them. Upon his arrest he put his hands up to surrender and shouted, “I am a patriot and an American.”

This upsurge of violence was reinforced by policy. The USA Patriot Act, passed in October 2002, led to mass roundups of immigrants and the use of warrantless searches of private residences and indefinite detentions of people who had not been proven guilty of anything. Attorney General John Ashcroft authorized racial profiling when he launched a campaign asking citizens to look for suspicious people in their neighborhoods.

Less than a decade after 9/11, the hunt for foes meshed with racism in politically explosive ways. When plans were announced to build a Muslim community center in Lower Manhattan in New York in 2010, a coalition of right-wing patriots and tea party movement adherents organized quickly to oppose what they began calling a “Ground Zero” mosque. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a staunch critic of now-President Barack Obama, charged that supporters of the mosque were nothing more than “radical Islamicists” who were dishonoring those who died when the World Trade Center collapsed. Pamela Geller, a far-right activist, also joined the effort to stop construction of the mosque. Her website, “Atlas Shrugged” warned of the threat of “Muslim Militancy” in America and called the first Black president a “third worlder” who was only interested in appeasing “Islamic Overlords.”

Conservative evangelical leaders like Franklin Graham and Pat Robertson revealed their anti-Muslim feelings by discrediting Islam itself. Robertson referred to Mohammed as a “killer”; Graham labeled Islam an “evil and wicked religion.”

These hostile attitudes emanating from the upheaval of 9/11 and a Global War on Terror reinforced a growing right-wing movement in America focused on division rather than friendship — and this soon overtook partisan politics. Government in its liberal form became a threat because its agenda was seen as favoring racial minorities over Whites. White nationalists had little use for government at all and dreamed of a nation devoid of racial diversity. Tea party advocates, often chanting “take back our country,” came to life after Obama’s election and railed against him and the cost of his plan to enhance health care for those who lacked such protection. Wealthy ultraconservatives like Charles Koch spent millions of dollars to defeat Obama’s “liberal agenda,” support campaigns to limit voting and shift tax burdens to those lower in the economic pecking order.

Donald Trump shaped and was shaped by this dystopian politics that relied on enmity long before he entered the White House. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 Trump fed the new wave of belligerency with a bogus claim that he had seen “thousands and thousands of Arabs and Muslims” in New Jersey cheering the collapse of the twin towers. He falsely attacked Obama as an illegitimate president, claiming he was not born a U.S. citizen. On the campaign trail in 2015, Trump promised to ban Muslims, invoked fears of Mexican immigrants and Syrian refugees and threatened to “lock up” political opponents. In office, he framed government not as an agent of collective or social improvement but as a strike force to be deployed against foes from within that threatened the “homeland” with their calls for racial justice, health care and protection against covid-19.

As Americans approach the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and rightly honor the people who died and first responders who tried to help them, they also face an outbreak of authoritarianism partially rooted in the fallout from 9/11 and hellbent upon destroying its domestic opponents. It is a world in which visions of autocracy and discord trump aspirations for camaraderie and democracy. And it threatens to destroy and divide the country perhaps more so than the terrorists could have imagined on that tragic day.