I was at work on 9/11, replacing a few pieces of concrete in front of a time-worn smoothie shop. A coworker and I walked inside just after nine for a second breakfast—we were teenagers, after all. The walls were yellow and happy, but the only employee there wasn’t. He ignored us as we came through the door. He was staring at something toward the back of the store. Rude, I thought. I turned to see what he was looking at. A TV was hanging high in the back corner like a spider. I don’t remember what news channel it was but it wouldn’t have mattered. They were all showing the same thing.
I could see smoke billowing from a building on the screen. I remember being painfully slow at putting the pieces together: There must have been a fire in an office building. OK, it was clearly New York City. But they’re talking about a plane crash. Wait, they got the Pentagon, too?
All I could do was stare. I understood that the World Trade Center towers had been attacked. I understood that people were dying. But it was impossible to make sense of it. Why would someone do this? What does this mean? What’s going to happen next? Some pointed out America’s long history of interference in global affairs, but the questions came from a place of injured innocence. The world’s last colossus, with its head in the clouds, didn’t often notice the effect of its steps upon the earth.
That innocence made room for indignation as war clouds gathered low over America. Someone had to pay and no nation dared to stand in the way. It felt like having a blank check. It was not a time for nuance. A few days after the September attacks, a Sikh gas station owner in Arizona was killed by an American too blinded by anger to tell the difference between the innocent and guilty, let alone the Sikh and Muslim faiths. Then President George W Bush called the attacks “acts of war” and America’s gaze, like the lidless eye of Sauron from Lord of the Rings, was fixated on Afghanistan and the Middle East, believed to be harboring Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. A country singer crooned about how “this big dog will fight when you rattle his cage” and that “we’ll put a boot in your a** it’s the American way” to hysterical crowds. The rage helped Americans feel in control again. Airstrikes began a few weeks later. The show 24 aired a few weeks after that.
Though written and shot before 9/11, 24 captured the spirit of post-9/11 America. The action-packed television show followed Jack Bauer, a counter-terrorist agent whose clinical ruthlessness and grim patriotism matched the mood of the country. The Atlantic’s summary of the show rightfully saw in Jack Bauer a messianic figure: “24 consistently created situations that required Jack to do terrible things for the greater good, and dared us to argue with them. In doing so, 24 made Jack a Job-like figure, a hero who bore all of America’s darkest sins on his freckly back and suffered endlessly to protect our freedom.” As the show went on, we began to see the psychological cost of Jack’s endless battles against evil, just as Americans were beginning to consider the many costs of their own wars.
While Jack Bauer was still on his holy crusade against the heretics, another show aired in Canada. Little Mosque on the Prairie was a risky proposition in years when anti-Muslim sentiment ran hot in North America. It followed a young imam who moved to Saskatchewan (i.e., “the prairie”) to shepherd a little congregation that happened to be meeting in the back of an Anglican church. The notion of a show about Muslims and Christians figuring out how to share a space in peace was ahead of its time.
That “outside” perspective helped me realise just how deeply I had been shaped by my American context. I hadn’t been especially political before the attacks, but as I watched the administration ham-fistedly attempting to convince the world that Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s strongman, was somehow also complicit I thought, “Sure, might as well get rid of these corrupt guys.” Wasn’t 9/11 a good excuse to scrub the world clean of tyrants? If the logic for the Iraq war had been lacking, that 9/11 anger made up the difference for many Americans.
A line in history
A generational line has been drawn in America between those who remember the attacks of 9/11 and those who don’t. That generational line separates my brother and I; it’s a line that seems to separate reality. Even though I remember air travel from the 1990s, those memories no longer feel real. When I see a movie with a man running through an airport to catch the woman he loves before she boards a plane, it might as well be about a man wanting to swim to the moon. Post-9/11 conventional wisdom tells me that anyone running through an airport, shouting “stop that plane,” is destined for a date with a phalanx of security.
This omnipresence of security is one of the most visible changes in the post-9/11 world. Security became an axiomatic good. Churches hired off-duty police officers. Police officers bought U.S. military equipment. The U.S. military became virtually omnipresent themselves, boasting an immediate response force that can drop a combat team roughly the size of a Roman legion anywhere in the world within 18 hours.
The thirst for greater security has made itself known in America’s immigration policies as well. On May 25, 2001, President Bush called Mexican President Vincente Fox to offer condolences over the deaths of 14 Mexicans migrating through the Arizona desert. According to records in a CRS report for Congress, both presidents met a few months later agreeing to respect “the human dignity of all migrants” and that “migration-related issues are . . . vital to our prosperity, well-being and the kind of societies we want to build.” 52,000 Mexicans legally immigrated into the United States that year as permanent residents. Five days after the presidents agreed that immigration is good for their respective countries, 9/11 happened. According to the Department of Homeland Security, in 2018 just 12,568 Mexicans were permitted to become permanent residents. Immigrants were no longer “vital to our prosperity,” they were all potential threats.
A weary world
These were not just strategic changes, but also spiritual ones. Post-9/11 Americans doesn’t bother to pay lip service to Emma Lazarus’ aspirational vision of America as “a mighty woman with a torch” whose name is “Mother of Exiles” and who calls out “with silent lips, ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.’” Ronald Reagan’s notion of America as a “city on a hill” in a weary world (a reinterpretation of a 1630 sermon by John Winthrop) is over. Americans have largely lost faith in the meaning of America.
Looking back these twenty years, what strikes me is how easily 9/11 shaped my own spirituality. Seeing the world as President Bush described it—“You are either with us, or with the terrorists”—was a rather cynical way to live. 9/11 showed me how sticky our political identities were. They shape us more than we are perhaps willing to admit. But another, stronger source of identity began shaping me again: my faith. Reading the Bible helped me keep cynicism in check because it reminded me that all people are struggling with the same condition. I began praying for my nation’s enemies as people who God loves. That faith helped me appreciate that human justice is always imperfect; that we need divine justice to truly set things right. Jack Bauer isn’t the man for that job. I’ve got a better Messiah in mind.
Matthew Lucio is a writer, pastor and podcaster living in Peoria, Illinois. Together with his wife Laura he is a father to two daughters.