The Day the World Changed

Revisiting September 11 and the culture wars, 20 years later

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was at my computer writing a column for The Boston Globe on a culture-war topic.

I was in Colorado Springs—nearly 2,000 miles away from my New Jersey home—where I was guest-teaching an intensive four-week class on gender issues in the political science department at Colorado College. The column I was writing discussed Anne Heche’s recent claims of childhood sexual abuse by her father, based on “recovered memories” and disputed by her siblings, and talked about the “recovered memory” phenomenon, gender politics, and the dangers of dubious pop-psychology fads.

I was about halfway through the column when the phone rang in my faculty apartment. It was a friend who asked if I was watching the news. Not right now, I told him. I’m on deadline.

I think you need to watch this, he said.

Why, what’s wrong?

The World Trade Center has been destroyed, he said.

That particular friend had a tendency to be a bit melodramatic, and I naturally assumed he was exaggerating.

What, you mean another terror attack?

I mean it doesn’t exist anymore! he said, almost shouting.

I still didn’t quite believe him. Then I turned on CNN.

About half an hour later I called my editor at the Boston Globe, Marjorie Pritchard, to confirm that my column was obviously not running—not the next day, not ever. In the space of a few minutes, it had become supremely irrelevant.

My parents called from New Jersey. They had been watching live; my mom, who had stepped away from the TV, had heard my dad shout, “Oh my God! Another one!” when the plane hit the second tower. As it happens, they had been planning to fly to Colorado Springs to do sightseeing and camp out in the spare room at my faculty apartment; their flight was booked for September 13. Dad told me they probably weren’t going, not because they were afraid to fly but because who could think of vacations? We didn’t realize at that point that the discussion was moot because all the flights were going to be canceled.

My 11 a.m. class was about to start. I wandered over to the building, slightly dazed. The secretary at the political science department told me classes were canceled. I remember that my class and I walked over to the student center and watched the news in the lounge at one point, but was it on the 11th or the 12th? I’m not sure.

I remember walking around the campus, with military helicopters buzzing overhead (the campus was very close to NORAD) and thinking it somehow felt wrong for the day to be so gorgeous. I tried calling my ex-boyfriend who worked at The Wall Street Journal, right next to the Twin Towers. All the lines were dead. (It would be two days before I heard from him; he had been there and had seen people tumble from the windows.)

I got online from the terminal at my faculty office. At the time, my main online home was (don’t judge) a Xena: Warrior Princess fan board. It had been also been the site of culture-war clashes that, in retrospect, look like a rehearsal for the “social justice” battles of the 2010s, with debates over the heroine’s sexuality invariably turning to accusations of homophobia. On September 11, all that was forgotten. People shared stories. One woman with whom I had repeatedly clashed over gender politics was going out of her mind because she couldn’t find her brother, who lived in Jersey City. Another, a forum friend who lived in New York, was badly shaken because she herself had had an appointment in the WTC later that day. Another, also a New Yorker, was worried about her cousin who worked in the Pentagon. (The cousin was okay.)

The solidarity was real. It also didn’t last very long. (In 2003, the fights over alleged homophobia got so nasty that the board split in two.)

When my class of about 15 people met for the first time after the World Trade Center attacks, we had a discussion about it. I remember that a good portion of the class was of the view that the attack was an understandable response to U.S. imperialism. On the Women’s Studies email list, where a friend of mine participated, that was the prevalent opinion.

Midway through the month, I gave a scheduled talk at Colorado College as part of my stint as guest lecturer. My topic was feminism and gender issues. As I recall, my main point was that after September 11 the time of identity politics (including gender politics) had passed; we were now all the in same boat as Americans.

I flew home on September 28. I still remember how, when the plane was on its descent into Newark Airport and flying over the World Trade Center site, everyone was glued to the windows looking down at where the Twin Towers used to be.

The post-September 11 world had its own cultural battles. Looking back at the things I wrote at the time, I don’t find very much to disagree with, though there are some things I wish I’d handled differently.

I wrote a number of articles on threats to free speech and civil liberties, warning about the dangers of “patriotic correctness” which labeled antiwar dissent (or even specific questions about the war in Afghanistan or Iraq) as unpatriotic. Re-reading one of those articles, I was reminded that Ann Coulter once accused then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of being “anti-American” for voicing concerns about the lack of a clear strategy in Afghanistan and accused the Democrats in general of “rooting against America.” (Good times!) I had also completely forgotten an actual incident in 2003 in which a guy got arrested for trespassing at a shopping mall in Albany, NY after refusing a security guard’s demand that he either take off his “Give Peace a Chance” T-shirt or leave. (On the bright side, even Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly came to his defense, and the mall was quickly shamed into dropping the charge.)

I was, however, way too cavalier about the backlash against the Dixie Chicks for criticizing the war in Iraq and George W. Bush during their London tour. Some of my comments at the time veered into the “criticism isn’t censorship” clichés beloved by today’s “cancel culture” deniers. But the campaign against the Chicks was classic cancel culture on the right, and I should have been far more outspoken about it. (In fairness, I didn’t know about some of the uglier aspects of this campaign, such as DJs getting fired for playing their music.) I did write about a disgraceful incident in which left-wing journalist Chris Hedges was essentially chased off the stage at Rockford College in Illinois when he criticized the war in a commencement address. And I debunked false right-wing claims that, for the first anniversary of the attacks, the National Education Association was promoting a commemoration plan filled with treasonous America-blaming.

However, my articles also refreshed my memory about the fact that even in the midst of all this, left-wing “political correctness” also remained a thing on college campuses. (Back then, it was definitely limited to college campuses.)

Thus, the student newspaper at the University of California at Berkeley, The Daily Californian, came under fire for running a cartoon that showed the dead hijackers arriving in hell while imagining that they were about to meet Allah and be serviced by 70 virgins in paradise. This supposed act of anti-Muslim "intolerance" sparked a protest rally about 100 strong. The U.C.-Berkeley Student Senate passed a resolution, by 11 to seven votes, demanding a front-page apology and diversity training for the paper's staff; it also proposed raising the paper's rent as punishment for the cartoon. The editors, to their credit, held their ground, saying the cartoon fell within the realm of fair political commentary.

At several schools, including Central Michigan University and Florida Gulf Coast University, administrators banned the display of American flags, pro-war posters, and stickers saying "Proud to Be an American" on the grounds that foreign students might be offended. (In most cases, such directives were reversed after a public outcry). At Duke, a professor's Web site was shut down after he endorsed strong military action against countries that sponsor terrorism; it was later reinstated, but with an unprecedented disclaimer that the views promoted on it do not reflect those of the university.

I don’t regret calling attention to these campus problems, but I should have paid more attention to the pressures faced by war-critical voices in the mainstream media. So, overall, I give myself a B on post-9/11 free speech issues.

The bigger question, of course, is the fate of the Free World—then fresh from its victory in the Cold War—after 9/11.

These days, it’s fashionable to believe that the War on Terror was a terrible mistake that led directly to Trump. Obviously, many things were not well done. But I don’t see how there could not have been a War on Terror given … well, given 9/11, and given the obvious existence of an international terror network prepared to wage all-out war on the United States and other liberal democracies. I don’t see how there could not have been a homeland security effort that included stepped-up surveillance of terror suspects. Another large-scale terror attack would have truly eviscerated popular backing for civil liberties. (“But more people die in car accidents and from accidental falls at home!” is a stupid argument that shows zero understanding of how human psychology works.)

I had serious doubts from the start about democracy promotion and the idea that we could create liberal democratic enclaves via war and occupation. I also think there was a very real problem at the time with American arrogance. I recall that not long after the start of the war in Iraq, I attended a Manhattan Institute speech by the late Charles Krauthammer the gist of which was that the United States, as the sole remaining superpower, was now in a position to conduct foreign policy unilaterally while pretending to consult and listen to our allies for the sake of decorum. Oh boy, I thought. This is not going to end well, is it.

Nonetheless, despite all the mistakes, I strongly oppose the tendency on both the left and the anti-war right to make America the de facto villain in the post-9/11 world. I think, unpopularly, that the Iraq war’s legacy is complicated and we still don’t know how it will look in 2050 or beyond. I think our presence in Afghanistan probably had some positive results. Epistemic humility is extremely appropriate in this case.

I think we have learned a hard lesson about the perils of going to war with a nation-building agenda, but I also fear that we’re about to learn an equally hard lesson about the costs of America’s retreat from global leadership (leaving a vacuum to be filled by the likes of Russia and China). Re-reading what I wrote in 2002 about the schizophrenia of left-wing feminists who bemoan “Western domination” and stubbornly ignore the fact that women’s rights, everywhere, are largely a Western export, I have no disagreements, only deja vu.

For instance, that was then:

At a conference in Canada in October, in a speech denouncing the West and the U.S. as the world's greatest source of evil, Prof. Sunera Thobani of the University of British Columbia dismissed "this talk about saving Afghani women," adding, "Those of us who have been colonized know what this saving means." Indeed, she asserted, "There will be no emancipation for women anywhere…until the Western domination of this planet is ended."

The Tanzanian-born Thobani isn't a lone kook. She is a former head of Canada's National Action Committee on the Status of Women, and she delivered her rant at a large feminist conference that was mainstream enough to be attended by Canada's secretary of state for the status of women, Hedy Fry. Thobani received several standing ovations.

And this is now, from a Teen Vogue columnist and a Syracuse University professor:

Twenty years after 9/11, we are coming off a particularly destructive culture-war cycle. Our withdrawal from Afghanistan, the full fallout from which is as yet unknown, brutally jolted many people into awareness that American retreat can lead to some very bad things. Perhaps the shock of this moment will galvanize a revival of support for American power (used more wisely than last time) and an American patriotism rooted in the conviction that, for all our flaws, we stand for freedom, individual rights, equal human worth, and human dignity. But such a revival can happen only if accompanied by a pushback against illiberal forces on both the left and the right.