Consider that during World War II there were fewer than one hundred civilian casualties on US soil. No fire-bombing of Dresden, no London Blitz, no Hiroshima. Throughout the most deadly century in human history, US civilians remained remarkably safe from foreign aggression. The trauma of 9/11 for most Americans was that it introduced the spectre of such sudden, mass death, not the reality of it. The chief fear was and remains still, weapons of mass destruction in the hands of terrorists.
But rather than offering a narrative that helped explain the purpose of the attacks and how most citizens weren’t at risk of immediate harm, the Bush Administration instead amplified their terrorizing effect by using them to induce more fear. They implied that Saddam Hussein had been involved: claiming that he possessed chemical and perhaps even nuclear weapons. Condoleezza Rice said in the lead-up to the Iraq War, ‘We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.’
Those that pointed out how illogical this connection was were accused of being weak and unpatriotic. Eventually, Bush and bin Laden’s political strategies became perversely interlocking. The president’s ersatz cowboy rhetoric stoked resentment among al-Qaeda’s potential recruiting pool, while bin Laden’s menacing videos helped Bush win reelection in 2004.
I remember listening to the mother of a dead US soldier being interviewed on the radio just as the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was becoming undeniable, even for the Bush Administration. She was asked if she thought the President had deceived the country. I’ll never forget her answer: ‘I just can’t believe that,’ she said. ‘If I believe that, then nothing else makes sense.’ This is how big lies work. Like banks, they become too big to fail. Their place in the ideological forcefield becomes so central that people can’t see through them without their entire world view crumbling. To this day, millions of Americans still believe Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11.
As a country, we haven’t put the attacks behind us because we don’t share a common story about why they were perpetrated or what they meant. And it hasn’t only been in foreign policy that 9/11 has been used as an accelerant for the rising dominance of right-wing thinking.