Fourteen years later and do you even believe it? Did we actually live it? Are we still living it? And how improbable is that?
Fourteen years of wars, interventions, assassinations, torture, kidnappings, black sites, the growth of the American national security state to monumental proportions, and the spread of Islamic extremism across much of the Greater Middle East and Africa. Fourteen years of astronomical expense, bombing campaigns galore, and a military-first foreign policy of repeated defeats, disappointments, and disasters. Fourteen years of a culture of fear in America, of endless alarms and warnings, as well as dire predictions of terrorist attacks. Fourteen years of the burial of American democracy (or rather its recreation as a billionaire's playground and a source of spectacle and entertainment but not governance). Fourteen years of the spread of secrecy, the classification of every document in sight, the fierce prosecution of whistleblowers, and a faith-based urge to keep Americans "secure" by leaving them in the dark about what their government is doing. Fourteen years of the demobilization of the citizenry. Fourteen years of the rise of the warrior corporation, the transformation of war and intelligence gathering into profit-making activities, and the flocking of countless private contractors to the Pentagon, the NSA, the CIA, and too many other parts of the national security state to keep track of. Fourteen years of our wars coming home in the form of PTSD, the militarization of the police, and the spread of war-zone technology like drones and stingrays to the "homeland." Fourteen years of that un-American word "homeland." Fourteen years of the expansion of surveillance of every kind and of the development of a global surveillance system whose reach -- from foreign leaders to tribal groups in the backlands of the planet -- would have stunned those running the totalitarian states of the twentieth century. Fourteen years of the financial starvation of America's infrastructure and still not a single mile of high-speed rail built anywhere in the country. Fourteen years in which to launch Afghan War 2.0, Iraq Wars 2.0 and 3.0, and Syria War 1.0. Fourteen years, that is, of the improbable made probable.
Fourteen years later, thanks a heap, Osama bin Laden. With a small number of supporters, $400,000-$500,000, and 19 suicidal hijackers, most of them Saudis, you pulled off a geopolitical magic trick of the first order. Think of it as wizardry from the theater of darkness. In the process, you did "change everything" or at least enough of everything to matter. Or rather, you goaded us into doing what you had neither the resources nor the ability to do. So let's give credit where it's due. Psychologically speaking, the 9/11 attacks represented precision targeting of a kind American leaders would only dream of in the years to follow. I have no idea how, but you clearly understood us so much better than we understood you or, for that matter, ourselves. You knew just which buttons of ours to push so that we would essentially carry out the rest of your plan for you. While you sat back and waited in Abbottabad, we followed the blueprints for your dreams and desires as if you had planned it and, in the process, made the world a significantly different (and significantly grimmer) place.
Fourteen years later, we don't even grasp what we did.
Fourteen years later, the improbability of it all still staggers the imagination, starting with those vast shards of the World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan, the real-world equivalent of the Statue of Liberty sticking out of the sand in the original Planet of the Apes. With lower Manhattan still burning and the air acrid with destruction, they seemed like evidence of a culture that had undergone its own apocalyptic moment and come out the other side unrecognizably transformed. To believe the coverage of the time, Americans had experienced Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima combined. We were planet Earth's ultimate victims and downtown New York was "Ground Zero," a phrase previously reserved for places where nuclear explosions had occurred. We were instantly the world's greatest victim and greatest survivor, and it was taken for granted that the world's most fulfilling sense of revenge would be ours. 9/11 came to be seen as an assault on everything innocent and good and triumphant about us, the ultimate they-hate-our-freedoms moment and, Osama, it worked. You spooked this country into 14 years of giving any dumb or horrifying act or idea or law or intrusion into our lives or curtailment of our rights a get-out-of-jail-free pass. You loosed not just your dogs of war, but ours, which was exactly what you needed to bring chaos to the Muslim world.