New York City firefighters work near Ground Zero after the collapse of the Twin Towers, September 11, 2001 in New York City. (Anthony Correia /
9/11 Didn’t Change Everything. Old Fights and Illusions Still Haunted Us.

When terrorist hijackers caused unspeakable tragedy on Sept. 11, 2001, killing 2,977 people, destroying the twin towers and striking the Pentagon, the day’s horrors, the conventional wisdom had it, changed everything. Many Americans feared that the country had entered a new stage in which large-scale domestic attacks by foreign terrorists would become commonplace. But they also voiced confidence in the capacity of the U.S. government to vanquish foes and eliminate threats. In words that President George W. Bush often repeated, “We will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail.”

Twenty years later, the state of affairs is very different. The anniversary of 9/11 is inescapably intertwined with unfolding events in Afghanistan, marked by the Taliban’s swift return to power, the chaotic American exit, the deadly Kabul airport attack and concerns for the fate of Afghans who supported the long U.S. war there. While the terrorism threat proved much less severe than initially feared, the United States appears to be reckoning with the limits of its power. Why did things turn out this way? And what accounts for the foreign policy quagmires that ended up defining the “war on terror”?

For all the shared belief that 9/11 had launched a new chapter, the response involved an intense look backward. Politicians sought to recapture a past definitively gone — especially the mid-20th-century golden age of American global standing — and embraced a caricatured version of those years that emphasized military adventurism, Manichaean us-vs.-them thinking and national security excess. The problem, though, was that the world had changed. As a result, 20 years on from 9/11, recalling the devastation of that terrible day invites reflection too on the forever wars, rights abuses and xenophobia that have come to define its legacy.

Read the full article in the Washington Post.

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