The End of the End of History
Twenty years have passed since America was attacked on September 11th, 2001. The occasion demands we reflect on who we have become: a terrified nation hellbent on self-destruction
What I remember is the fear.
A dread that alternated between sharp, fight-or-flight immediacy and a fuzzy, ill-defined, looming sense of uncertainty.
I was nineteen years old, watching the attacks play out on a small television in my dorm. The men on my floor buzzed from room to room, screaming obscenities, racial slurs, most of them expressing excitement that they might see military retribution before the sun went down. Hopefully, they said, a nuclear explosion that wiped a people off the face of the Earth.
Everything after is a blur. We started drinking heavily before noon, wandered the campus of Indiana State University, Terre Haute proper, watched people roll through the streets, honking their horns, leaning out their windows and screaming for vengeance. In the evening we kept one TV on for updates and a possible war while we continued pounding beers and massacring each other on GoldenEye, all while laughing about the upcoming eradication of the Middle East.
It’s something that makes me feel shameful. I lectured about it a few years ago at a Human Rights Day Event in Terre Haute and the room I delivered the speech in was a few dozen feet away from the entrance to the dormitory. I know because I counted. After the remarks a man about my age came up, admitted he’d experienced the day similarly, and told me it was one of his most embarrassing memories. I’ve heard this from a lot of men.
The attacks of September 11th will be remembered for generations because of the events they set in motion and the reality they destroyed. The fear that I felt, that many others felt, that motivated bloodlust and vengeance and a march to fascism, was triggered by the destruction of not only the Twin Towers, but of a world wherein America was and would remain the sole, undisputed, unchallengable superpower. As the buildings fell, that illusion crumbled with them, and our concept of life itself began to flicker.
I had lived a small life by 2001. I had traveled some, not much. I had read a lot, but learned little. I grew up saturated in a religious belief that the United States of America was a chosen nation, a Shining City Upon A Hill anointed by God to maintain peace, prosperity, and forward the mission of liberty throughout the world. Although I had moved beyond the faith by September 11th, watching the events unfold was akin to having a religion destroyed in living, breathing color.
That faith, both religious and secular, was manifested intentionally, constructed through decades of propaganda, indoctrination, and a larger idea that can best be summed up by Francis Fukuyama’s infamous essay The End of History? Published in 1989, Fukuyama, a Neoconservative, surveyed the political landscape and the sputtering of the Soviet Union and declared that liberal democracy, particularly liberal democracy with a preference for accelerated capitalist markets, had won the competition of society and would become the last and best stage of human civilization.
Often, Fukuyama’s work is cited and then criticized for the misunderstanding that he meant events would simply end, that things would become predictably stagnant, but his hypothesis that the United States and capitalism had won the Cold War and the battle against authoritarianism, and had thus established itself as the undisputed champion of civilization, bears enough criticism without reducing his argument in totality. Fukuyama was hardly alone in this belief, and post-1989 leaders like President George H.W. Bush sought to cement this idea in a New World Order that featured America as the leading force of good and stability with the nations of the world following its lead.
The shock of 9/11 wasn’t just the spectacle of the attacks, the round-the-clock broadcast of human tragedy that played out before us, the audacity we were forced to witness and re-witness for hours and hours and days and weeks and months and years on end. It was the snapping awake from a dream, like coming to from a deep sleep to find you are at the wheel of a speeding automobile racing toward an inevitable cataclysmic crash.
On September 14th, Dutton/Penguin-Random House will release the paperback edition of Jared Yates Sexton’s AMERICAN RULE: HOW A NATION CONQUERED THE WORLD BUT FAILED ITS PEOPLE. This new edition will feature an additional chapter covering the attempted coup of January 6th, Donald Trump’s push to overturn the presidential election of 2020, the ongoing tragedy of the pandemic, and the continued rise of fascism within the United States of America. The book itself is an attempt to retell American history to explain its authoritarian roots and character, as well as to warn of our possible future if a new direction is not forged.
It took roughly a year to come to terms with the fear. As America rallied - Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative - in espousing statements about retribution, patriotism, and the need to do something, I started to question both who I was and what was the true nature of the country. Luckily, I found some of the right books, some of the right voices. By the time the Bush Administration began using the tragedy as a means of invading Iraq, a sovereign country with no ties whatsoever to al-Qaeda or the attacks, it was clear to me that something wasn’t right.
The problem, however, was that I had yet to understand the nature of why something like this could possibly happen. Like many others, I attended rallies, I wrote articles and created art voicing my concern, begging leaders to listen to reason. In conversation, we hoped something we might say or do could break through, could end the fever gripping the nation and hopefully postpone tragedy.
It was one of the largest anti-war movements in the history of the world, and like the protests against the war-crimes in Vietnam decades before, it might have changed the perception of the conflict but it ultimately failed to prevent the war itself. The shock I felt, the heartwrenching disappointment and horror, was yet another illusion flickering in the wake of the attacks. What I had yet failed to understand was that empires have a momentum all of their own. That there is no such thing as stagnancy in an imperial structure that runs based on the system of aggressive capitalism. The power must always grow, it must always expand and agitate, it must always reach into other nations and markets and societies, even those it had established or stabilized in the past, and take because the only true constant is growth.
The same need for new conquests that had led to the attacks of September 11th would now turn to Iraq. The U.S. had long interfered abroad, overthrowing nations to aid its corporations and banks, seeding coups and carrying out assassinations to protect the bottom line, straddling the line between ethical and brutal action in order to secure resources, extract materials, and realize a worldwide order that suited its political and financial interests.
Fukuyama’s end of history, H.W. Bush’s New World Order, the international framework created, maintained, and protected by blood and treasure and human misery, all of it had led to an out of control, self-destructive system that was crashing rapidly and wildly with every passing day.
The people we had trusted to lead us had failed. Their plans had failed. The system that supposedly won the Cold War, that supposedly materialized a better, kinder, more human future, had failed abysmally. And though we did not know it yet, that failure had begun to show at the edges of empire, but would soon become very obvious here at home.
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What we watched in Afghanistan was simply the most obvious example of our failures. Retreating from the Taliban after twenty years of occupying Afghanistan and failing to establish a system to our liking or even one that could stand for longer than a few days was an incredible spectacle of futility and exactly the most effective metaphor for this damned debacle that anyone could order.
But Afghanistan was far from the only consequence. Twenty years of militarism and fearmongering has left us here, in a country where not only are our systems of healthcare and education failing, but we are incapable of judging reality from fiction, conspiracy theories from expert advice, and the hatred and distrust of the Forever Wars has left us on the verge of full-scale societal violence against one another. The transfer of trillions of dollars to the military-industrial complex at the expense of our own programs and well-being has left America a struggling, anxious, suffering nation of struggling, anxious, suffering people. The war has come home.
By adopting torture abroad, we have become desensitized to fascism. By ignoring the rights of other humans elsewhere, we have unleashed overt antidemocratic forces here in America. By treating our supposed enemies as inhuman and disposable, we have created a domestic environment where the Right can brutalize, sterilize, and possibly liquefy immigrants and other “non-persons.” It’s no surprise, whatsoever, that as we inch up toward the twentieth anniversary of September 11th that we are witnessing some of the most dangerous attacks on liberal democracy and open society in the form of outright coups and a power grab by the Right that could reduce representative government to yet another sham of an illusion.
What September 11th should be remembered for is the shattering of a lie of American exceptionalism and security, but also for its aftermath and how an empire is, and always has been, a frightened entity that cannot help but continue to conquer, maim, kill, and destroy everything in its path while eradicating any of its espoused principles. We should remember the lives lost, here and abroad, because they were people caught in the middle of a clash they had nothing to do with, a battle between a swaggering empire and a murderous group spurred by religious certainty masking ambition and a lust for power.
The United State of America and the world would be better places today had we sat with our fear, our uncertainty, our anger, and reflected on what it meant and, in particular, why we felt it. The foundations we built this society upon, the certainty of our goodness that rivals the same assuredness felt by al-Qaeda, the confidence in ourselves and any of the principles that were soon revealed to only be convenient slogans and propaganda, was faulty from the beginning. We lashed out and murdered and destroyed because to do otherwise would have meant reckoning with our own failures and the ramifications of the lies we had been told.
What we felt twenty years ago was not the restarting of history or the rumbling of a new reality.
It was the collapse of a dream that was never real to begin with.