What the 9/11 Memorials Missed, and What They Revealed

The victims were targeted as Americans. Why hasn’t that blunt and inescapable fact been placed at the center of our account twenty years later?

Flags and flowers adorn the names of the victims of the attacks during a ceremony at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum on September 11, 2021 in New York City. Craig Ruttle-Pool/Getty Images.

Flags and flowers adorn the names of the victims of the attacks during a ceremony at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum on September 11, 2021 in New York City. Craig Ruttle-Pool/Getty Images.

Sept. 20 2021
About the author

Wilfred M. McClay is professor of history at Hillsdale College and author of Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story (Encounter, 2019).

Everyone who was alive at the time of the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath remembers the formula: if we do this or that to alter our way of life, then “the terrorists will have won.” It started out as an utterly earnest phrase, making a serious point about preserving the things that most deserve defending in the American political system. The venerable civil-libertarian Times columnist Anthony Lewis expressed what has become the classic formulation in a summer 2004 edition of Mother Jones, “If we allow our liberties to be trampled,” he wrote, “the terrorists will have won.” But as the immanence of the terrorist threat waned, and a sense of complacency began to set it, the phrase became the butt of endless jokes. “If I can’t go out and eat a Big Mac today, the terrorists will have won”: that was the pattern. The smirking talk-show host David Letterman got in his two cents: “If I can’t text inappropriate photos then the terrorists have won.” Or there was the comedian Ellen DeGeneres, host of the Emmy Awards in November of 2001: “We’re told to go on living our lives as usual, because to do otherwise is to let the terrorists win, and really, what would upset the Taliban more than a gay woman wearing a suit in front of a room full of Jews?”

Never very funny to begin with, these lines have taken on a whole new aspect in the past few weeks. For by any reasonable measure the terrorists are now winning. The very forces that protected al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden and permitted them to plan attacks on the United States are now back in power, savoring what they see as a second great victory for militant Islam, following its previous triumph over the Russians, a success so complete that the Soviet Union itself soon thereafter would cease to exist, collapsing as rapidly as the Twin Towers would collapse a dozen years later. It would be hard to imagine a more satisfying and encouraging confirmation of a divinely ordained world-historical destiny. The forces now in charge in Afghanistan have every reason to think that there is a holy wind at their back, and they are likely in the fullness of time—which might come in mere months—to make their country into even more of a haven for international terrorist groups than it was twenty years ago.

In addition, they have won this war in a way that has brought unprecedented shame and disgrace upon the United States in the process. What were our leaders thinking? Was it that they were weary of a seemingly endless commitment to a seemingly impossible task, anxious “to go on living our lives as usual,” and eager to generate a grand photo-op finish to the Afghan adventure that (it was thought) would provide a symbolic bookend to the whole matter, and redound to the benefit of a struggling Biden presidency? In any event, our leaders deliberately timed the chaotic withdrawal of American troops and personnel to correspond with the 9/11 attacks of 2001, the very events that put the Afghan tragedy into motion. In departing, we left behind for the use of our enemies some $85-$90 billion of advanced military equipment, an amount more than the annual military budget of all but two countries, the United States and China, and we abandoned an unknown but not insignificant number of our own people and vulnerable Afghan allies who had trusted American leaders to stand with them and for them.

What can one say? The harsh consequences of acts of such colossal, comprehensive, almost inexplicable stupidity may not be long in coming, and we have good reason to fear for our ability to cope with them when they do, given our current addled and divided state. Our enemies in that part of the world have never before shown us any quarter, and it is ludicrous to think that they will start doing so now, under these circumstances.

Perhaps the most astonishing part of it all is that this defeat is, to a large degree, a setback that we have inflicted upon ourselves. In fact, there is a good case to be made that what we have just witnessed is, to borrow a phrase from the military historian Mark Moyar, a triumph forsaken. The immediate goals of the post-9/11 Afghanistan invasion had been quickly met, and there had been no comparable attack on the American homeland since 2001—an achievement that very few observers in 2001 thought possible. Over a dozen American servicemen have since been killed in the course of America’s August 2021 withdrawal, but for eighteen months before it, the United States had not suffered any military fatalities. A small residual garrison of a few thousand, geared toward counter-terrorism operations rather than grandiose cultural transformation and nation-building, could have been maintained there for years to come and protected our national interest in limited but vitally important ways. Such an outcome would also have fully honored the sacrifice of those thousands who gave life or limb to the cause. It could have made clear what many had forgotten: that our task in Afghanistan was the management of a chronic problem, not the imposition of an impossible “solution” to it.

But we did not do that. Our approach became all-or-nothing, either complete cultural transformation or bust, with the latter being the result, an example of how genuine idealism can, over time, curdle into abject cynicism. And what our shocking actions have shown to the world, more than anything else, is the face of a country that is confused, irresolute, bitterly divided, demoralized, poorly led, easily distracted, prone to fits of pathological self-loathing, and simply not up to the task of world leadership—and perhaps not even the task of self-government.

We are clearly a weaker, unreliable horse in the world’s eyes now, and our allies and enemies alike are already busy rethinking their plans accordingly, and recalibrating their future relations with us. Whether we choose to remain the weak horse is going to be up to us. Chances are that we will be faced with unforgiving hardships either way. We’ll have plenty of reason to regret the actions that our leaders have so clumsily undertaken over the past month, the ground they have so fecklessly thrown away. And we won’t be the only ones regretting it.


With this background in place we can ask some simple but important questions, ones that involve the anniversary that we have just commemorated—or tried to. But it was not easy, was it? The act of commemoration, especially if it involves the honoring of the dead, represents one of the fundamental features of civilized life, a way that we pay attention to the connection of past, present, and future, honoring the past while drawing on it for sustenance and direction in facing the trials to come. What then, going forward, does 9/11 itself mean to us as a nation? How do we incorporate that meaning into our national story? How are we to make sense of it, in light of its having been the catalyst for a twenty-year contest that ended so ignominiously? If indeed it has ended at all?

When I wrote about this same general subject in the pages of National Affairs on its tenth anniversary, I already noted that there was comparatively little attention then being paid to what September 11 means, and should mean, for Americans. There was, and is, a reason for that. “We lack a general consensus,” I said at the time, “about the event’s larger importance to our nation,” a fact that greatly complicates the task of national remembrance. I reflected upon an old metal sign that I keep by my desk, dating back to the 1940s, bearing the words “Remember Pearl Harbor.” No American, at least not until the poorly educated Americans of recent years, would have had any doubt as to what those words meant. But there is reason to wonder whether any comparable clarity or universality of meaning can be found in the words “Remember 9/11.” Many Americans in fact are likely to ask instead: what ought we even to remember? Wouldn’t we be better off simply to forget?

I would have thought that no one who was of age in the days after 9/11 could possibly forget the surreal horror of the attacks, and the enormity of the damage they caused. For a great many of us, those dreadful sights that beggar description remain burned into our memory. Neither would I have supposed that one could easily forget the country’s response, in the form of the sudden proliferation on American streets of a vast profusion of American flags, or the sudden enthusiasm for the playing of patriotic songs in public places. Those memories offer us a fleeting glimpse of a robust and unabashed patriotic unity of which we Americans were once fully capable, not so very long ago.

But many of us have indeed forgotten, and our moments of remembrance have proved fleeting. As powerful as September 11th proved in galvanizing national unity and providing a floundering young president with a chance to prove his mettle, its immediate influence rapidly dissipated, giving way to the kind of endless internal political conflicts that have been our hardwired condition at least since the contested election of 2000, if not longer. Concerns about the nation’s alleged lapse into rampant “Islamophobia” soon began to overshadow patriotic sentiment, or anxiety about the possibility of another attack. More and more Americans became willing to consider the possibility that the United States was somehow to blame for the attacks against its helpless civilians—“why do they hate us?”—and fully deserving of them. Or alternatively, it came to seem that the danger of al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups had been grossly exaggerated for political purposes, and had led to a massive abrogation of civil liberties, as well as the use of harsh techniques of detention and interrogation that placed us outside the pale of civilized humanity.

These sources of internal division did not disappear. Instead, they seem to have hardened into a default setting, even as those more patriotic memories seem almost impossible to credit in today’s bitter and censorious environment. At many times during these past two decades, it has seemed as if the world’s conflicts are of interest to Americans only insofar as they can be incorporated into the eternal struggle for political power in America, the only struggle that really matters. Never in modern times has our nation seemed more insular, more myopic, more self-absorbed—even and especially when we think about the world outside of our borders; never has it appeared more unable to imagine world events in any way other than as refracted through the ceaseless battle for political advantage in Washington.

The interpretation of September 11 has been a victim of this cultural condition. What happened on that date was an attack on the American nation by organized and committed jihadists enjoying the shadowy support of other nations, some of them duplicitous “allies” of the United States. It was a deed committed with the intention of wounding and destabilizing the American nation, a deed whose origins are to be found running at least back to the 1970s, with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. That episode ended in a colossal victory for the terrorists, and now, after twenty years’ effort in pushing back the challenge of American might—preceded, lest we forget, by at least ten previous years of terrorist acts, including in the failed attack on the World Trade Center in 1993—another such victory seems in the offing.

Or so it seems to them. As we in the West wallow in guilt and identity politics, preoccupied with the pursuit of absolution for our imperfect pasts, bereft of a compelling story about who we are, our jihadist enemies suffer from no such inhibitions. In an August 18 statement, the al-Malahim Foundation, that is, the media arm of al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), put it this way: “After two decades of jihad, steadfastness, and willpower in the conflict with the crusader West and the global forces of unbelief, [our brothers in the Taliban] were crowned with full power over the brave land of Afghanistan, the graveyard of empires and superpowers, and the defeat of America and the crusader West.” That supreme confidence in the long game, rather than their superior strategy or tactics or weaponry is the secret of their success. The challenge to us ought to be unmistakable. As Andrew McCarthy has so aptly put it, “Jihadists believe history is on their side, that they are winning, that their opponents are weak of will, and that they will ultimately prevail by patient, ruthless faith.” However delusionary such beliefs may seem to us—and as McCarthy and others have pointed out, they require a breathtakingly selective reading of Islamic history to be sustained—they must be taken seriously by us precisely because they are taken seriously by our adversaries.

In the famous formulation of the sociologist W.I. Thomas, “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences,” an adage that applies with especial force to the world of war and diplomacy and international relations, where perception and reality are hard to distinguish. Our catastrophically bumbling withdrawal from Afghanistan after twenty years has made our enemies’ “situational definition” even more entrenched, and its defeat incalculably more difficult. We are now faced with the task of lifting ourselves out of an enormous hole that we have dug for ourselves. Where to begin?


We could begin with a fuller and more realistic assessment of the events of 9/11 itself, understanding it and observing it as an important event in the life of the American nation, and not merely of some individuals in that nation, and as a challenge that we will need to meet by resolute and proportionate means, steadily applied, rather than by presidential impulse. That would help us a great deal, and would use our commemoration as an occasion for a kind of civic education.

But most of what we are getting from our political leaders is a reliance on the admittedly riveting human-interest stories coming out of this event. The chief story that is told is one of the heroism and suffering of those who bore the brunt of the attack: the victims, their families, the first responders, firemen, police, and medical personnel. And the many tragedies of lives cut short, lives maimed and mutilated by senseless loss. These are vitally important stories and should be told again and again, every year. They should not be forgotten. But that poignant retelling cannot take the place of relating, again and again, the larger cause for the sake of which the heroism and suffering took place. The victims were targeted as Americans. If that blunt and inescapable fact is not placed at the center of our account, we have missed the larger context for properly celebrating the heroes and mourning those who were lost, and finding our way forward from here.

Let me illustrate what I mean with a historical example. Imagine if Lincoln had given the Gettysburg Address without making any mention of the Civil War’s purpose, but instead told stories about farm boys wrenched from the placid security of their homes and thrown into the charnel house of war. But he did no such thing. In fact, Lincoln chose not to dwell on details of the suffering and sacrifice of the men being laid to rest in that new national cemetery. Instead he began the address by invoking the achievement of the Founders (who created “a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”) and going on to describe the war as a “testing” of that original achievement. That test, he tells the audience, is for us. It is, he concluded, for us, the living, to carry on the effort, and to see that “these dead shall not have died in vain.”

President Biden gave no public speeches for this year’s 9/11. But he did broadcast a pre-recorded message, and visited the three sites damaged by the attacks. He offered a few impromptu words at Shanksville, Pennsylvania, at the memorial to the doomed Flight 93. “These memorials are really important,” the president said at a stop at the local fire department. “But they’re also incredibly difficult for the people affected by them, because it brings back the moment they got the phone call, it brings back the instant they got the news, no matter how years go by.”

True enough, and an affecting observation. But we need much more than that from our leader. The leadership we need would help us make sense of where we are, and where we have to go from here, if those lives are not to have been lost in vain. We need serious and honest oratory in the service of a national vision which would help us ground our emotions in something larger than ourselves and our individual experiences. Biden’s words could have applied just as well to lives tragically lost in a massive auto accident or a flash flood.

So did they die in vain? Is a leader’s silence on the subject a way of whispering that they did?

What words we did get did not supply us with a viable and believable public meaning for 9/11 rising above the immense suffering of its victims, the undeniable heroism of first-responders, and the like. At the 9/11 memorial plaza in lower Manhattan, President and Mrs. Biden stood silently with their Democratic predecessors, the Obamas and the Clintons, and other dignitaries, including former mayor Rudy Giuliani, and they listened as relatives of the victims, many of them children, read aloud the names of the dead, in what has become an annual ritual that paused for moments of silence marking the times when the hijacked planes hit their targets and when the twin towers eventually fell. All of which is moving and appropriate and even beautiful in its way—but not enough.

The haunting and frankly dispiriting 9/11 Memorial near where they stood—two massive pools set within the footprints of the vanished Twin Towers, with the largest manmade waterfalls in the United States cascading down their sides—bears the enigmatic title “Reflecting Absence.” That reticent, Zen-like name conveys a certain passivity and lack of conviction, even as its waterfalls have the effect of drawing one down, down into the earth. This is not enough either. These structures remind one that the attacks on the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and other structures in 2001 were primarily intended to demoralize us and terrorize us and set us against one another, to erode our sense of solidity and mutual trust, to symbolize vulnerability on our side and ruthlessness on their side. Can we be so certain, even now, that the effort failed? Look around. Is the state of our liberty and our comity back to what it was twenty years ago? How well would we respond today to another 9/11 attack? Do we have the capacity to draw together as we did, however fleetingly? Are we today the same people we were then?

The larger public meaning would have to begin with facing up to the fact that we Americans have been engaged for many years now in a genuine and ongoing civilizational struggle—something that the “terrorists have won” jokes mocked but also implicitly acknowledged. Our leaders have never been clear about that, and they have largely fallen silent on the civic crisis characterizing this American moment. President Biden’s promise that he would “restore the soul” of the country now manifests as a campaign catchphrase deployed against President Trump; another sign that our political class is content to reduce the obligations of leadership to partisan sloganeering.

Fortunately, the fundamental decency of the American people has not been entirely suppressed. There is fury abroad in the land, especially in the lower ranks of the armed forces, over our bug-out in Afghanistan; and there are valiant American citizens who have defied all odds, including obstructions placed in their path by their own government, to rescue the Americans and others who have been abandoned there. What has been done by our leaders in Washington has offended against that fundamental decency in the national character. It has offended against Lincoln’s principle: that we must highly resolve that our dead shall not have died in vain.

It was an illusion to think that killing one leader, Osama bin Laden, or defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan, would solve the problem. For one thing, it is not a problem that can be “solved.” And the fundamental conflict is not with one person or with jihadists in one country—although it is equally a mistake to claim, as did the former president George W. Bush in an otherwise admirable speech for this year’s September 11, that the “same foul spirit” is the source of all offenses against pluralism and the status quo the world over, foreign and domestic. Such vague and simplistic rhetoric only serves to blur the problem, and—once again!—assimilate 9/11 into the web of domestic politics. The fact is that we have never clearly characterized for our nation, and ourselves, the nature of the present civilizational conflict and the identity of our adversary. For various reasons, we haven’t had the will or the courage or the clarity to do so. There will be consequences for that failure.

One of those consequences will be that the memory of 9/11 may become even more unpleasant and troubling to contemplate in the future than it is today, as reflected in Biden’s words at Shanksville, and in so much else of our public discourse. It will be to us the alarm to which we responded, not by rolling over and going back to sleep, but by committing an even worse form of default. The American people already sense this might turn out to be the case. In a recent Quinnipiac poll, over 60 percent of Americans stated that they believe American troops will have to return to Afghanistan. And they may be right about that. That in the same poll some 54 percent of Americans expressed agreement with President Biden’s abrupt removal of American troops is an indication of the confused state in which we find ourselves. We recognize the likely necessity of doing something we are unwilling to do. How much more, therefore, do we need leaders of integrity, intelligence, wisdom, and courage, the kind of leaders we have been mainly lacking for the past four decades, to help us navigate what lies ahead. If nothing else, we can use our commemoration of 9/11 in the years ahead to concentrate our minds upon that fact.


For more at Mosaic on the commemoration of 9/11, see Richard Goldberg’s essay, “September 11 from 1981 to 1931” and the response it generated from Senator Ben Sasse.

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