After 9/11, America was no longer invincible

The date lit off a series of attacks and emboldened terrorist groups around the world

Shortly after 3 pm on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I was walking down Rue Saint-Antoine in Paris when my brand-new Nokia flip phone rang. It was a reporter friend from National Public Radio, and she was panicking.“What I am about to tell you is not George Orwell,” she said. “But two planes just crashed into the World Trade Centre.”My mood – which had been one of joyous relief as I was taking a 6-month sabbatical from my job – shifted to panic as well. I found a bar near Place des Vosges with a television set, ordered a drink and with horror watched the images of lower Manhattan on the screen. Shortly after, I took a cab in tears to the American Embassy on the Avenue Gabriel. There were already crowds of people there, placing bouquets of flowers at the gates.

What I remember next is something I have never experienced again, not in France, not anywhere in the world: a moment of global human solidarity.

“Nous sommes tous Américains,” and old man said to me in a church where I sought solace. Other older people told me stories of the liberation of France, how they remembered the kindness of American soldiers who had come from Normandy. It was the first time I experienced pro-American sentiment in France.A few days later, I was on a plane to Moscow. Some days after that, on a small plane to Dushanbe, then I joined a flat raft crossing the Amu Darya Oxus River into Taliban-held Afghanistan.On the other side of the river were US-backed Northern Alliance fighters who were working their way to Kabul. I thought it would take us a few days; it took months. But by November, my colleagues and I were walking into a new Kabul: the Taliban had fallen. By December, I was in Tora Bora, where US forces were dropping Daisy Cutter bombs to root Osama in Laden out of his cave.

After 9/11, nothing was ever the same. Not America, that was grievously, mortally wounded; not politics, not wars. Everything following that day would be seen through the lens of terrorism and fatal attacks. When I finally got back to America the following summer – by then I was based more or less in Baghdad, waiting for the fall of Saddam Hussein – I spent time in Middletown, New Jersey, a lovely, normally sleepy river town where 37 residents had died in the Twin Towers, the second hardest-hit community after New York City.

Hijacked United Airlines Flight 175 (L) flies toward the World Trade Center twin towers shortly before slamming into the south tower (L) as the north tower burns following an earlier attack by a hijacked airliner in New York City September 11, 2001. The stunning aerial assaults on the huge commercial complex where more than 40,000 people worked on an ordinary day were part of a coordinated attack aimed at the nation's financial heart. They destroyed one of America's most dramatic symbols of power and financial strength and left New York reeling. FR05070027 SECOND OF SEVEN PHOTOGRAPHS REUTERS/Sean Adair  SV

Many of the residents worked for Cantor Fitzgerald, the investment bank that took the greatest hit, losing 658 employees that terrible day. Many residents of Middletown, and Rumson, and Red Bank, surrounding towns, were investment bankers who took a ferry from nearby Highlands to reach their offices on Wall Street.

My family lived near Red Bank. I had spent childhood summers on the beautiful beaches, on the horse farms, apple picking or walking near the peaceful Shrewsbury River. Now, far from that idyll, I was assigned to talk to survivors and the families of those who had died. What I remember most – aside from the tears that I shed talking to shell-shocked new mothers who had kissed their husbands goodbye in the morning never to see them again – was the sense that “it’s just not normal to die in a terrorist attack.” Commuter parking lots were full of cars of people from the Bayshore Area who never came home. Writing the story of Middletown, NJ, tracing through the lives of those who died on that day was one of the most painful stories I ever reported. America is not my usual beat, and it was hard to see my country as a war zone, or a country so badly afflicted with sorrow.

A few years later, I wrote another piece about a small town in Maine, where recruitment for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq was especially high, and where many of these young men – some teenagers – died far from home. They had joined the armed forces because their towns were impoverished once the paper mills, the sources of revenue, had closed down. I remember going to an unbearably sad flag raising with the father of one of the young soldiers, who cried: “They died because of 9/11.”Everything changed after 9/11. Before 9/11 you waltzed up to an airline gate, got on a plane (and in my case, lit a cigarette once you took your seat in the smoking section). Before 9/11, people died tragically, but rarely in terrorist attacks.

September 11 lit off a series of attacks that then followed, and emboldened terrorist groups around the world. Prior to that, terrorist attacks seemed remote, far away, even previous Al Qaeda strikes – US Embassies in 1998, USS Cole in 2000, even the World Trade Centers in 1993. Something died on September 11, 2001, aside from 2,996 souls – the belief that America was invincible.

The wars I reported in the 1990s, largely in Africa and the Balkans, were rooted in the end of the Cold War or had echoes of imperialism or colonial roots. They were about old grievances, tribal battles, ethnic tensions and hatred. The wars I reported post-9/11 were largely about eradicating terrorism or the rise of terror groups. Even Syria, which started out as a cry for freedom from a brutal regime, descended into a battleground for ISIS, Al Nusra, Hayat Tahrir Al Shams and others.

Which brings me back to the Afghanistan departure in 2021, which has raised countless issues about the future of America’s foreign policy. The departure from Afghanistan and the 9/11 commemoration is a stark reminder of where we are in America today. In the initial months after the tragedy, Americans came together in sadness and patriotism. Today, we have never been as divided as we are – by the Donald Trump years, by the pandemic, by the decision to mask or not to mask, to get a vaccine or to remain unprotected. By the decision to reverse women’s reproductive freedom in Texas, or by the massive political divides over red/blue states.

Some Americans don’t remember 9/11 – they were too young. A recent Pew report says 93 per cent of Americans over 30 know exactly where they were when it happened. At Yale, most of the students I teach were not even born. They know the enduring legacy of 9/11, but it is hard for them to imagine the emotion of that day. For others, it remains a day when American foreign policy shifted forever.

Published: September 10th 2021, 9:30 AM
Janine di Giovanni

Janine di Giovanni

Janine di Giovanni teaches human rights at Yale University's Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and is a columnist for The National