September 11, 2001 was my fifteenth birthday.
I remember sitting there in B Block English when our class was interrupted by the news that an airplane had crashed into the World Trade Center. My classmates and I didn’t know what to make of it. Shaken, our teacher turned us back toward our discussion of “Macbeth.” Then we heard that a second plane had also crashed into the twin towers. Then a plane hit the Pentagon. And another crashed in rural Pennsylvania.
I remember going out for a birthday dinner with my parents that night. Everybody was bewildered. It felt like the sky was falling.
A couple days later, somebody in the lunchroom told me about an apocalyptic vision that some guy named Nostradamus had, which began with the siege of two towers. It all sounded plausible to me. Maybe the world really was ending? I remember laying awake every night for the next couple months, terrified.
I remember distinctly how popular media seemed to almost grind to a halt. John Stewart, the most trusted voice in my family’s living room, went off the air for nine days. All we really had to go on was the horrifying camcorder footage of the attacks, played over and over again, and a corporate news establishment that seemed mostly to just parrot press releases from the Bush administration verbatim.
Nobody had smart phones, and it would be several years before Mark Zuckerberg dreamed up Facebook. It would be even longer until Twitter launched. Wikipedia was a few months old, but nobody that I can remember knew anything about it. I think my family had a slow as sludge dial-up Internet connection through AOL.
In retrospect, I can’t imagine how the American populace could possibly have been more exploitable than we were at that moment.
In fact, it took less than three days after the attacks for the US Congress to pass the “Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists” almost unanimously, paving the way for the Bush administration to quickly invade not one, but two foreign countries.
The only member of either house to vote against the measure was Rep. Barbara Lee, a former Black Panther from Oakland, who decried the measure as a “a blank check to the president to attack anyone involved in the September 11 events—anywhere, in any country, without regard to our nation’s long-term foreign policy, economic and national security interests, and without time limit.”
How right she was.
Today, fifteen and a half years later, as our country continues to struggle to pay back more than $4 trillion in military expenditures and our communities are reeling with the heart wrenching weight of trying to reintegrate 2.5 million traumatized American soldiers, Lee’s words ring powerfully.
Today Iraq and Afghanistan both stand in teetering rubble after more than a decade of near constant warfare. As the smoke clears on the shattered remnants of their towns and villages, menacing thugs continue to hold sway across both nations, drawing eager recruits from the multitude of families who have been devastated by the hundreds of thousands of dead bodies that the US has left in its wake.
In the 2016 presidential debates, we watched both leading candidates try to out back pedal each other, both working as hard as they could to distance themselves from their prior support of the invasions. These days, everybody across the political spectrum seems to agree that the invasions were wasteful, corrupt and vicious.
But, back then, too many of us were terrified. Silent. Shushed and kept in the dark. Although protests broke out in city squares across the country, for the most part, there was no way to quickly and effectively communicate with each other about what was going on. We were disorganized, ignorant and powerless. And they took advantage of us.
Today, things at least have the potential to be different.
For one, these days a media blackout like the one following September 11 would probably be impossible. Thanks to social media, we can now communicate rapidly with one another and readily scrutinize what’s happening. Content no longer needs to get a green light from a national editorial desk to be seen by millions of Americans.
But, while the Trump administration will never be able to command the kind of political silence that George W Bush did, today we have a new kind of problem on our hands. Sure, it’s become possible for courageous independent truth tellers to go viral, but liars and fear mongers can now do so as well.
We need to be careful. Free speech by itself is no guarantee against tyranny, and the world has never been this noisy.
Real change only happens when people come together across entrenched social differences. If progressives are going to build political power in this country, we’re going to have to build diverse coalitions that span lines of race, class, age and gender, bringing all kinds of people to the table together in a way that genuinely makes each of us feel included.
Thanks to social media, these days, everybody can talk. The question is, can we listen?