21 Years After 9/11 – The Most Important Lesson We Still Need to Learn

The children born on September 11, 2001 turn 21 years old today. This means, in the judgment of most legal jurisdictions, these young people are mature and responsible enough to have a drink of alcohol. Maybe we should all take a shot with them – a toast to their future. This toast should not be a mere wish of good luck, but also a resolution. We ought to resolve that we will finally cease to allow powerful interests to play on our fears and use great tragedy to push forward their preferred agendas at our expense. It is a lesson that we have unfortunately yet to learn following the tragedy that occurred on 9/11, and it is a tragedy in itself that has caused just as much devastation as the attacks in New York and Washington DC.

When the attacks occurred, people were understandably scared and confused. It was not the first massive attack on a civilian population in human history, but for most people processing it at the time it was unprecedented. People cried for the victims and thirsted for answers. Some desired revenge. Many of the actions we took in the months and years following the attacks have proven to be mistaken and foolish; the negative consequences of which are still being felt in many ways today. A lot of people benefitted from pushing certain agendas following the tragedy of 9/11, and they used its memory as a way to silence dissent and challenge the patriotism of anyone that suggested we follow a different path. “Never let a good crisis go to waste,” they rationalized. While these people that benefitted from the tragedy and caused further death and destruction by promoting their wrongheaded policy may never be brought to justice (they can always hide behind the benefit of the doubt until time erases the impetus to act and means to do so) we can at least recognize our errors and not allow a similar fate to befall us again. As the saying goes, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” Well, shame on us because we continue to let the same thing happen over and over again with each passing threat, conflict, or tragedy.

We should resolve to not let the actions of individuals and small groups push us into conflict with no end in the name of achieving justice. This is the mentality that allowed the open-ended “War on Terror” that resulted in death and destruction many times greater than on 9/11 in places far removed from the event. Going after the actual perpetrators of 9/11 was (and is) necessary to achieve justice, but using the vaguely worded 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force springing from the 9/11 attacks to later intervene in Iraq, Libya, and Syria among other places reflects a dereliction of duty on our part to act rationally and responsibly to check our emotions and match our policy to just, logical action.

We should resolve to not let fears of potential harm destroy our way of life and tarnish the virtues of a free society in the name of public safety. Domestically, the Patriot Act, the increase of the bureaucratic surveillance state, TSA travel restrictions, and more sprung out of our knee-jerk reaction to a terrible, but isolated event. As we have seen since 9/11, the danger is temporary, but the growth in government and loss of freedom is permanent. What threat might the existence of all this pose to our way of life in the future? The lessons of history certainly don’t paint a pretty picture, as the powerful tend to abuse their power eventually.

We should resolve to not let vested interests control narratives, divide society, and demonize virtuous, natural actions in the name of public health. This goes well beyond security matters. As we have seen with COVID, powerful interests will use fear to push for expanded government in other ways too if they can conjure up a threat big enough. Lockdowns, mask mandates, mandatory vaccines, travel restrictions, and widespread suppression of dissent in the scientific and social spheres of society were uncalled for; they violated rights, hindered better solutions, caused harm in themselves, and created permanent structures and expectations for future abuse. Just as in the aftermath of 9/11, this all occurred as it did because certain interests wrongly pushed fear on the populace based on desired policy, not actual need or proven methods. There was some opposition, but more is needed To oppose a psychological operation of such magnitude.

We should resolve to not let fears on the world stage push us into unvirtuous actions as a means of preventing the threat of the same actions we feared from others in the first place. We have been doing this, for example, with NATO policy towards Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but accelerated it with our involvement in the 2014 Western-backed coup in Ukraine. What we fear from Russia, they fear from the West, so a logical policy, if prevention of hostilities is the goal, would be to not provoke the other side in the same manner we wish to not be provoked. Fear and hubris pushed us to think we could act one way (expansion eastward, covert operations in neighboring countries, arming nations, etc), but preach another (foster neutrality, promote open diplomacy, disarmament, etc). Our continued failure as a populace to check these impulses of our leaders cultivates the conditions that lead to conflicts like the current one in Ukraine. While the propaganda machine is working overtime to paint the picture one way, time will reveal this was yet another blunder caused by our failure to act in accord with logical, fair, universal principles.

All these issues are complex and we do not want to simplify or trivialize them or suggest we ought to do nothing when faced with threats or challenges. The only thing suggested here is that we take care to ensure our ends are virtuous and that our means to our ends are virtuous as well. Check the emotions, control the fears, and ask, “What is moral, what is legal and what will work best without causing long-term problems?” We do not want the proposed “cure” to be worse than the supposed “disease.” We can apply this to all things- a similar maxim of action in determining domestic policy on such issues as gun violence, police brutality, teaching racism in schools, creating sustainable energy and food production policy, and a multitude of other issues will result in action that creates real change instead of more top-down coercion that tends to empower those in control at everyone else’s expense.

So raise your glass and join in a toast to the next generation coming to age. May they always confront challenges with proper judgement and concern for the consequences of their actions, may they always remain empathetic and principled but keep emotions checked, and may they do a better job than us remembering the most important lessons of history, especially of the 9/11 tragedy.

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