I find myself assessing the significance and implications of 9/11 today very differently than in the years immediately following the attacks. That day was very direct and personal in some respects: I lived about a mile from the Pentagon, and my wife had been in the complex just 20 minutes before the plane hit. Coming home that evening was surreal as we passed through military checkpoints and watched the flames still burning. 

I also soon realized that 9/11’s impact on my career would be considerable. After writing a Ph.D. dissertation on Muslim communities in Europe and struggling for a couple of years to generate any interest whatsoever in the topic, I had officials from various three-letter national security agencies knocking on my door within days of the attacks asking what I knew about various radical Islamist groups in Germany and France. This was not the kind of interest in my work I’d hoped for and a harbinger of what was to come over the next decade as I spent more and more time figuring how to navigate the progressive securitization of Islam and Muslims in American public discourse. The Berkley Center has played a significant role in bringing nuance to these discussions, particularly with respect to correcting misperceptions about where religion fits—or, as is often the case, actually does not fit—into the picture.

I find myself looking back on the general trajectory of American life over the past decade and thinking of 9/11 and its aftermath as the watershed moment in a long process of us losing touch with reality.

On this twentieth anniversary of 9/11, however, I don’t find myself reflecting mainly on the (failure of the) wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the tragic irony of an American president announcing the need to hunt down the terrorists who attacked us just as the United States pulls its last troops out of a country we invaded…in order to hunt down the terrorists who attacked us. 

Instead, I find myself looking back on the general trajectory of American life over the past decade and thinking of 9/11 and its aftermath as the watershed moment in a long process of us losing touch with reality because it became politically impossible to push beyond this country’s “final vocabulary” (as the late philosopher Richard Rorty might have called it) in order to recognize and say things that needed to (but couldn’t and still can’t fully) be said about history and its consequences. So now 9/11, Iraq, the Tea Party, Trump, #MeToo, BLM, and January 6 all run together in my mind as a cumulative moment. Did 9/11 perhaps enable, perversely, the first steps toward this necessary time of reckoning?

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