This 9/11, America's greatest threats are from within

The September 11 attacks briefly united a wounded nation, but much older wounds were left to fester

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The outline of America’s presidential campaign has been obvious for months, if not the last two years, since the Democrats took back the majority in the House of Representatives. November 3 will be a referendum about Donald Trump. No policies to debate, simply a decision about him.

But over the last few months other issues have come up: will the election be free and fair? Will Mr Trump leave office if he loses, as every poll at the moment indicates he will? How much more low-grade violence will accompany this election?

I’m an American. Even asking these questions, as millions are, seems insane. How did America get this way?

That last question is worth thinking about on the anniversary of 9/11.

It's an ironic question. The last time the country was truly united was the day the Twin Towers came down in 2001. I live in London but by chance was in Boston that day, hosting a national radio programme.

On that day and in the weeks that followed, the country was united in a way I had not experienced since I was a boy and president John F Kennedy was assassinated. Given what has happened over the past nearly two decades, should we thank Al Qaeda for providing that moment of unity?

In history there are many before and after moments. The attacks of 9/11 seemed like they might be such a moment for America. But they weren't

It's easy to forget that America was already badly disunited before the attack on the World Trade Centre. Ten months earlier, George W Bush defeated Al Gore in the most contentious presidential election of modern times. Mr Gore won the popular vote but needed to win Florida in order to have a majority in the electoral college. But Florida had irregularities in the original vote count. No winner could be proclaimed until the Florida result was known. Weeks went by. A recount in Miami was broken up by thugs who claimed to support Mr Bush.

Eventually, the US Supreme Court proclaimed Mr Bush the winner in Florida, thus making him president. The country was still bruised by that election when Al Qaeda’s airplane plot came to fruition.

There are many theories of history but I think the state of America today is an example of the “unrepaired roof” theory. It goes like this: a person owns a house and notices that a roof tile has come loose but hasn’t fallen off. He ignores it for a few winters. Then, after a storm, he notices that several other tiles are coming loose and gets an estimate from a builder before deciding he can ride it out for another season because he wants to take his family on holiday or buy a new car.

Then, one day he notices a damp patch in his bedroom ceiling, there is a short circuit in the house’s electrics. And he realises this is because of the moisture coming through the roof. (I understand that this image may not work perfectly for those who live on the Arabian peninsula.) His failure to do basic maintenance has led to greater damage. Then a strong wind comes – not a tornado, just a typical autumn storm – and the roof blows away and his house can no longer be his home.

Long before 9/11, the basic maintenance a society must do to preserve itself had been neglected in America.

Physical infrastructure had not been maintained. It was not just motorways and bridges built in the golden years following the Second World War that were in bad repair. As jobs shifted from manufacturing to service work, the towns and cities that had grown up around factories were simply allowed to disintegrate.

Today a trip through parts of Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania is like a visit to ancient Roman ruins, except that many who used to have full-time, good-paying jobs in those ruined factories still live there.

Educational infrastructure had not been maintained for the average American. Elite schools and universities remain global centres of excellence, but the overwhelming majority of American children do not get a good education anymore. The state system that I was educated in at the same time as Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak and most of the founders of the personal computing age and internet no longer exists. It has been underfunded since the 1970s. It was also turned into a political football.

Political infrastructure had not been maintained. The only way to ensure that American government can function is for Republican and Democratic legislators to acknowledge that neither side can gain everything it wants and to compromise on legislation. During the 1980s, on the Republican side, the idea of politics as a consensual process was lost.

By 1994, Republican Newt Gingrich, speaker of the House of Representatives, had turned politics into civil war by other means.

Moral infrastructure had not been maintained. A no-holds-barred kind of capitalism had been unleashed during the 1980s by people who regarded the works of Adam Smith as the fifth gospel, latter-day revelation: "The rich ... are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions."

Smith’s writing is not an absolute law of nature, but America’s hedge fund managers and private equity folks did not get the memo. Inequality became entrenched. Even as American school children pledged allegiance every morning to “one nation indivisible”, the society was hopelessly split along class, religious, racial and political lines.

Then came 9/11 and for a year or two there was unity. It was a unity that would only start to fall apart as the invasion of Iraq in 2003 loomed, and even then, it didn’t disintegrate until the occupation of that country failed.

Other events showed the country struggling. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina destroyed the city of New Orleans, and government at all levels couldn't organise the relief effort. Tens of thousands of mostly poor people were trapped inside a football arena for days, and three people died while waiting for evacuation.

US President Donald Trump speaks on judicial appointments in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House in Washington, DC on September 9, 2020. / AFP / MANDEL NGAN
US President Donald Trump has polarised the American public even further. AFP

The crash of 2008 led to emergency measures to save the banking system and the bankers who had caused it, but the recovery missed out large parts of the population.

By 2015, the media was reporting that America had recovered. It hadn’t. That year, life expectancy for white men and women fell in the US for the first time since the flu pandemic of 1918. It continued to fall for the next three years. Why? Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton coined the phrase “Deaths of Despair” to explain the phenomenon.

Also by 2015, the terrorist threat most concerning to US officials was coming from white nationalist militia groups. That same year Mr Trump launched his successful bid for the presidency. The states that were left in ruins – Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania – provided his winning margin in the electoral college. His pitch to voters was to deepen disunity. Them and us. The memory of a country united in the face of attack is receding.

In history there are many before and after moments. The attacks of 9/11 seemed like they might be such a moment for America. But they weren’t. For the Middle East, perhaps, they were a turning point. But that’s a subject for another essay.

Michael Goldfarb is the host of the First Rough Draft of History podcast