by Chris Bertram on September 11, 2021

As everyone knows, today is the 20th anniversary of 9/11, as well as being the 48th of the coup that toppled Allende in Chile. But decades being what they are, as well as locations and long-term consequences, 9/11 is the one that will rightly be getting the most attention. Its most important consequences include millions of dead across Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, as well as other parts of the Middle East, a catastrophic loss of freedom across the world because of ever deepening securitization and hardening of borders, Guantanamo and torture at the hands of “liberal demogracies”, an enraged Islamophobia that has infected the “West” and divided countries between racist right-wing populists and the rest, bringing us Trump and Breivik among others, and, ultimately, a relative loss in power of the American hegemon with the humbling withdrawal from Afghanistan. Israel’s leaders were encouraged to dig in, knowing then that they could get away without any concessions to the Palesitinians. Some of developments no doubt have other causes too, but without 9/11 we’d be a lot less far down the path. Osama bin Laden failed in most of his aims and the slaughter of nearly 3000 people was for nothing: the Caliphate is no closer than it was, though the world is a lot worse, perhaps especially for Muslims.

Everyone who was then alive and still is will know where they were that day. I was on the top floor of the Bristol philosophy department when I started picking up the confusing news and turned the radio on. Nobody really knew what was happening and there were odd reports of things that don’t seem to have happened, such as, if I remember right, a car bomb outside the Pentagon. I went down and told a couple of other people the news and we listened and watched, obsessively refreshing our browsers. In the following days, we had little meetings and seminars in which some of us had to push back against the idea that the death of three thousand American civilians was somehow “deserved”. Having travelled to the US at Easter of the previous year, gone to the top of the World Trade Center with my young sons (our very first visit to the US), I was sentimentally inoculated against that particular brand of anti-imperialist triumphalism, for which I consider myself morally lucky.

And out of it all came blogging and ultimately Crooked Timber as we all argued online about processes and forces beyond our comprehension with people like Instapundit, “Armed Liberal”, and Norman Geras. Michael Walzer asked whether there could be a “decent left” and the answer seems to have been that “decent leftism” was a gateway to right-wing alignment for many (where are the signatories of the Euston Manifesto now?). I too wrote things then of which I am now ashamed.

So let’s remember the three thousand, but also the more numerous dead of Mosul and Fallujah, of Helmand, of Aleppo, of nameless places where drones struck, of Utøya too. All those people who would be living now but for 9/11 and the reaction to it, as well as those who did not die but are maimed in mind or body.

A song about the day itself from one of the greatest songwriters of the past 20 years:



Jake Gibson 09.11.21 at 12:20 pm

I suppose my feelings about 9/11 are somewhat of an aberration. I really don’t understand why so many lost their minds in the wake of it. New Yorkers I can understand. One of my Sister-in-law’s brothers was working at the Pentagon at that time, and she didn’t turn into a Neo-con like so many did. I suspect it was seen as a violation of American Exceptionalism. “How dare anyone attack us, we’re the good guys?”


Matt 09.11.21 at 12:30 pm

I’d returned to the US from two years in Russian in early August of 2001. One of the things that I’d disliked in Russia when I was there was the presence of flags everywhere. It seemed over the top to me. Of course, the comparative absence of flags in the US didn’t last long. (The apartment bombings that helped start the 2nd Chechen war took place a couple of weeks after I got to Russia. Perhaps I’m bad luck.)

I’d had my interview for the Peace Corps (that’s why I was in Russia) in one of the smaller buildings of the world trade center that was destroyed that day, as the main building fell on it. A friend of mine from when I’d been in grad school before joining the Peace Corps had left grad school and worked for a company where his office was high up in one of the towers. He’d gone down to get coffee and donuts that morning, saving his life.

That morning I was walking to the philosophy department at Penn from my apartment in center city Philadelphia. I saw a bunch of people outside of a store that sold TVs, on Walnut st. I stopped to see what they were doing. We watched the 2nd plane hit, on the TVs through the window. I walked down to a used book store I liked (now out of business for several years) and went in to look around – a somewhat strange thing to stop and do in retrospect. The owner and I listened on the radio as the first tower came down, and I walked the rest of the way to school.


PatinIowa 09.11.21 at 4:39 pm

I was teaching Rhetoric (first year comp plus) at Iowa that day.

When I got to class, I learned that one of the Jewish students (I knew she was Jewish because she had written an insightful paper on Midwestern anti-semitism) was waiting to hear if her father, who worked in the financial district in Manhattan had survived.

There was a first generation immigrant student from Pakistan in the class. He had a full Muslim beard, and had made clear Islam was important to him.

Each of them said to the other, “I hate this. I bear you no ill will. This is horrible and human beings can and should do better.” I let them lead the discussion. What more did I have to offer?

I swear, every time I’m about to circle down into darkest despair, someone, often an undergraduate, reminds me of the compassion we’re capable of.


JimV 09.11.21 at 8:22 pm

One of my (several) lasting impressions from that event was the first, brief, televised appearance of George W. Bush in the White House afterward. He looked to me like a deer in the headlights, stammering, “An act of war has been declared against the United States!”

Declared? You mean committed, I thought. Later he gave more rehearsed, polished speeches, giving the pretense of someone qualified and competent, which he was not. The Emperor had no clothes. I already knew that from the 2000 campaign, but had consoled myself with the thought that at least he had some experienced advisors, such as Cheney and Rumsfeld.


digamma 09.11.21 at 9:25 pm

This site was an inspiration and a comfort through that whole period. Thank you for all your work.


engels 09.11.21 at 10:48 pm

I wonder how many years will have to pass before people all around the world, including those who’ve never met a New Yorker or set foot in America, are allowed to stop commemorating it.


Alan White 09.11.21 at 11:13 pm

I came home that morning from walking my corgi, Burton. The phone rang. My best friend on the other end. She said, “Do you have TV on?” I said no. She then solemnly said, “You’d better turn it on.”

We talked until the live feed showed the second plane hit the south tower. Though there was speculation and confusion about what had happened, it was clear then it was a coordinated attack using passenger jets.

In my night class we talked a lot about the difference between certitude and certainty concerning ideological beliefs.

Driving home I passed three gas station minimarts. Prices had quintupled, even though I knew that was illegal. They were mobbed with cars filling tanks in some sort of show of uncertainty and fear.

Today we face something with no intent on destruction, but nevertheless much more destructive to citizens’ lives domestically. Our reaction? Deep division based largely on the cult of personality.

Not only have we learned nothing, but we collectively have become more ignorant how to respond to any threat.


oldster 09.12.21 at 2:40 am

I don’t know whom to credit, but I have always valued the aperçu:
9/11 was a bee-sting; the War on Terror was anaphylactic shock.

Though the cases also differ in that the histaminic system may get it wrong, but does not act with the comprehensive perfidy, dishonesty and bad faith of the Bush regime.


oldster 09.12.21 at 2:45 am

Was reflecting on the whole parade of catastrophes that followed on 2000 — the SCOTUS theft of the election from Gore; the consequent relaxation of vigilance against Al Qaeda (“alright, you’ve covered your ass”), the failure to confront global warming when more could have been saved at less cost, on and on.
And I wondered whether perhaps Prince was right. Party over oops out of time


J-D 09.12.21 at 3:52 am

My story about the day is less interesting than my story about something that happened afterwards–not much later, but later (days? weeks? maybe, but not years).

It’s not at all surprising that some of the people who were killed in the World Trade Centre were Jewish.
It also shouldn’t be surprising that there were people spreading stories about how no Jews were killed because they were all warned not to go in that day.
It’s not particularly surprising that an IT support person who was helping somebody I knew told her one of those stories after introducing the topic by asking ‘Do you know how many Jews were killed in the World Trade Centre?’
I don’t think it’s surprising that my acquaintance should have been taken aback and not known how to respond to the question, which is why she brought the subject up with me by asking me the same question the IT support person had asked her.
Another thing which isn’t surprising to me, but which I didn’t know at the time (although it was easy to guess and I was rapidly able to confirm it), is that some people reacted to the spread of these stories by posting online lists of Jewish people who were killed. Of course they did. When I turned my mind to the subject, I guessed that would have been done, and I was easily able to confirm it. But before I’d done any of that, as soon as I was asked the question, I spontaneously responded with a three-digit number. I don’t know what it was, I must have fabricated it on the spot, but the process was practically unconscious. How did that happen?

As a result, I have been prepared ever since to respond unhesitatingly with a three-digit number if anybody should ever ask me if I know how many Jews were killed in the World Trade Centre. Nobody ever has, though.


Fake Dave 09.12.21 at 9:30 am

I don’t understand the reference to Aleppo. The 9/11 attacks and the US War on Terror seem
to have little direct bearing on Syria’s civil war. It’s true that the Iraq war helped destabilize the region and was the crucible DAESH formed in, but I’ve seen no convincing evidence for “anti-imperialist” claims that the Arab Spring uprisings and Syrian Revolution were caused by foreign provocateurs nor was Aleppo was not ruled by anti-Western Jihadis when Assad and the Russians bombed it into submission. Both regimes may mouth anti-terrorist rhetoric, but they have ample and obvious geopolitical motives besides those.

Of course major geopolitical events affect one another, but it’s easy enough to imagine a world with no 9/11 where Syria still has a civil war and Russia and various others still intervene to protect their interests. Syria’s political upheaval (as well as Western meddling) predates 9/11 by many decades. Economic malaise, the failure of their intervention in Lebanon, and Bashar’s unreadiness to rule are just some of the contributing factors that seem to have nothing to do with the War on Terror. Why those would be less determinant than Western security policy is beyond me.


oldster 09.12.21 at 4:58 pm

Another thing more evident in retrospect:
All of the blather about “shock and awe” in the run-up to Iraq was pure projection.
It was America which suffered shock and awe after the 9/11 bombings. It was a terrible shock to our self-image, to our complacency, to our sense of physical and moral invincibility. It led to many years of mental derangement and mass hysteria.

What Iraq suffered was months of anticipatory dread. But when the bombs fell, they were not shocked. They were not awed. Some of them were killed, some were maimed, some were disgusted, some had their worst fears confirmed.
But it was not shocking, and it inspired no awe.


Chetan Murthy 09.12.21 at 9:25 pm

Fake Dave@11: I thought it was well-established that two stresses broke Syria:
1. drought leading to agricultural famine, that pushed many farmers to cities for survival
2. the influx of Iraqi refugees due to the Iraq War, as well as the rise of militant groups in Syria, using it as a rear base.
#2 wouldn’t be relevant, except that since we were waging an illegitimate and stupid war, the knock-on effects are arguably our fault, including bad acts by our opponents.


Derrek Kellough 09.13.21 at 3:53 am

You write “hardening of borders” and wonder why you cannot attract a mass viewership.


Tm 09.13.21 at 9:56 am

In the days after 9/11, a colleague of mine emailed around the wingdings hoax (, apparently taking it seriously. I was stunned when I first saw it, then looked up the number “Q33 NY” (I didn’t use google at the time but capable search engines were definitely available) and within seconds knew it was a hoax. In that moment it occurred to me that my colleague and many others had fallen for a hoax that they could easily debunked. The internet gave us unprecedented access to knowledge but, it became clear, it wasn’t making us as a society better informed, to the contrary. That depressing insight has only become more true over time.

Speaking of anniversaries:
9/11/1938 November pogroms in Nazi Germany (“Reichskristallnacht”)
9/11/1918 Proclamation of the Republic in Berlin


Daniel 09.13.21 at 4:31 pm

Tm – Kristallnacht and the proclamation of the Weimar Republic both took place on 9 November, not 11 September.


engels 09.13.21 at 8:17 pm

This is why it should always have been called 11/9.


nastywoman 09.14.21 at 5:56 am

Yes – it took place on 9/11


Tm 09.14.21 at 7:11 am

OMG so embarrassing…
Still, there must be some number magic at work with those 9/11s … (no I’m not serious)

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