One of the dominant media narratives in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, was that the attacks had transformed New York and America forever. CBS called its documentary on 9/11 The Day That Changed America. Newspaper columnists wrote pieces with headlines like, “We Are Different Now.” Walking the streets of Manhattan in those days, it wasn’t far-fetched to think this way. The attacks had exposed New York and other great American cities as “soft” targets. Every parked truck could be loaded with bombs, every plane in the sky was a potential missile, and plenty of angry, evil people around the world were ready to attack us. Newspapers warned that some Manhattan businesses had already started renting space outside the city; one of New York’s most important industries, tourism, seemed gone for the foreseeable future.
But while memories of that sky-blue Tuesday morning are seared into the minds of those who lived through it, 9/11 changed America and New York much less, it turns out, than we imagined. Yes, we still wait in airport lines to be X-rayed before boarding planes. Survivors still feel the absence of those they lost on that day. And in our efforts to root out terrorist bases overseas—to fight what George W. Bush would proclaim as a War on Terror—we began wars that resulted in occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan spanning two decades. With the recent ongoing disaster in Afghanistan, it’s as if everything has come full circle—and right on cue.
The feared waves of follow-on attacks against America never materialized after 9/11, though, and New Yorkers brushed aside their initial shock and quickly returned to business. New York recovered far faster than most imagined possible, and then rapidly evolved beyond the city it was in 2001, as new industries emerged, new neighborhoods sprang up, and new visitors and residents poured in.
September 11 supposedly created a more vulnerable, more introspective country and city. Not quite; but something else happened. Seen from today’s perspective, the months and years after 9/11 seem to belong more to an old America than a new one. New York proved to be a city, for instance, where people laced up their work boots, adjusted their hardhats, and got about the business of rebuilding. It was an America where cops were considered heroes, where patriotic songs came back into fashion, where national holidays became even bigger celebrations than before 9/11, where sports united us, and where bipartisanship in Washington was at its highest point since the days after Pearl Harbor. America and New York might be very different today than they were in 2001, but it wasn’t 9/11 that made us this way. If anything, the response to 9/11 might show us a way back from our current fractiousness.
It’s tempting to remember the post-9/11 moment in terms of the grand rebuilding plans, domestic-security initiatives, and foreign policy debates of that era. But what really illustrates the America and Gotham of those days are smaller things: the way we responded to the threat and chose to assert our American identity. Take, for instance, the idea of police and firefighters as heroes—one of the sentiments that I associate most closely with 9/11. By 2001, New York was nearly a decade into policing reforms meant to battle unprecedented urban disorder, and violent crime was already down by 70 percent from its early 1990s peak. Because most of the city’s neighborhoods were substantially safer than ten years earlier, the new civic order had unlocked enormous, buried potential. With the disorder of the recent past still fresh in many minds, this remarkable turnabout was hardly controversial; in fact, cities around America had rushed to imitate New York so that they could reclaim their civic life, too.
Then the city’s police, fire, and emergency personnel rushed headlong into those burning buildings. Their valor and sacrifice, Victor Davis Hanson wrote in City Journal shortly afterward, was a side of New York City that few people around America had previously glimpsed—a window into the kind of gritty, everyday working guy (and some gritty working women, too) who expressed the character that made the city what it was. “In the tradition of all great American armies in battle, officers . . . died alongside the rank and file, heroic death requiring no prerequisite of class or color,” Hanson wrote. A Catholic priest, brought to the site of the Twin Towers after the attacks, said being around cops and firefighters was a new lesson for him in humility and self-sacrifice. “I was standing next to people whose jobs required them to sacrifice themselves at a moment’s notice,” Father James Martin told the New York Observer. “Here were people who would give their lives for other people, which is at the heart of the Christian message. They put me to shame. A news reporter asked me what I said to inspire them. It sounds like a pat answer, but I said, ‘They inspire me. They’re incredible.’”
A photo of firefighters raising the American flag at Ground Zero became iconic, reminding Americans of a similar photo snapped 56 years earlier on Iwo Jima. Thousands of mourners packed churches around the metro area as the bodies of some of the 412 cops, firefighters, and emergency workers who died that day were laid to rest in one transfixing funeral after another. Dozens of impromptu memorials to these heroes sprang up around New York, featuring photos of the dead, flowers, messages, and—always, it seemed—American flags. Vendors showed up around the perimeter of Ground Zero selling flags like they were hot dogs. And this wasn’t just happening in New York: Walmart sold some 450,000 American flags nationwide in the two days after 9/11, compared with 26,000 in the same period a year earlier. Over the next six months, the giant chain store retailed five times more American flags than usual.
Professional sports have often played a prominent social role in our recovery from national traumas. So, too, with 9/11. Baseball took a week off after the attacks but came back to enormous attention. The first major sports event in New York after 9/11 was a Mets game against the Atlanta Braves, which featured players wearing baseball caps sporting the logos of the NYPD, FDNY, and other services that had lost members at the Twin Towers. When Mike Piazza hit a dramatic home run in the eighth inning to give the Mets the lead, the crowd rose and chanted, “USA, USA, USA.” Not just in New York but around the country, that chant became common. Playing the national anthem at games after 9/11 turned into a pageant, with police and armed-services personnel front and center. Baseball teams replaced or supplemented songs like “Take Me Out to The Ball Game,” traditionally sung during the seventh-inning stretch, with “God Bless America”—a two-fer of patriotic tunes that lasted for years. Perhaps the quintessential sports event of that period was President George W. Bush’s throwing out the first pitch of a World Series game at Yankee Stadium after having visited Ground Zero earlier in the day. “I’ve been to conventions and rallies and speeches,” Bush said of that night. “I’ve never felt anything so powerful and emotions so strong, and the collective will of the crowd so evident.”
Twenty years on, that America is harder to find. While 9/11 united us for a time, Covid-19 has been a national tragedy that divides, not unites, exacerbating a process already well underway. Far from being hailed as heroes, cops and firefighters are vilified and stopped from doing their jobs—even when they’re trying to protect businesses and neighborhoods from rioting and looting. The rush of new recruits to the police and armed forces after 9/11 has been replaced by early retirements and resignations from forces around the country in a demoralizing environment for law enforcement, as different from 20 years ago as can be imagined. Today, instead of impromptu memorials to heroic cops, cities sport murals and monuments denouncing them. The narrative of America as weak, divided, and paralyzed by self-doubt seems ever stronger now, especially with the recent disaster in Afghanistan.
Sports, too, are now far more likely to divide us, as athletes pick political sides and take a knee before games. Forget “God Bless America”; the national anthem itself has become so controversial that some sportswriters argue we should stop playing it before games. And few other endeavors beyond sports escape censure. A few months after 9/11, a New York Times music critic praised an orchestra’s playing of Brahms’s magisterial German Requiem to honor the dead. Today, critics are more likely to chastise orchestras for being insufficiently diverse and for programming white composers like Brahms. Weeks after 9/11, Columbus Day became a giant celebration in New York and around America. “Fifth Avenue was awash in American flags and marching bands played God Bless America,” as one news report described. Today, we pull down statues of Columbus.
If you look closely at the aftermath of 9/11, you can see the roots of what America has become. At a college rally at Wesleyan University nine days after the attacks, a professor compared the hijackers with the American Revolution’s central figures. The editor of The Nation expressed disgust when her young daughter asked her for an American flag. Still, these were lonely voices back then, easily ignored. Such sentiments have now gone mainstream.
The question is whether that America of heroic cops and patriotic songs, of ordinary Americans rolling up their sleeves, is gone forever or poised for a comeback. There’s precedent for the comeback idea. What we are experiencing today closely resembles what happened in the country in the late 1960s and 1970s, when worthy causes like the pursuit of civil rights for blacks and a healthy questioning of our involvement in Vietnam devolved into revolutionary movements aiming to upend our political, legal, and economic systems. Americans didn’t like the radicalism of these years and so shifted course again, though at great cost—especially in our cities, where it took some two decades to suppress the disorder that resulted from that era. We’re already seeing something similar now: parents are rising up against schools that teach their kids they’re inherently racist, and residents of some cities are recoiling at the rising violence and disorder enabled by a new generation of politicians intent on overturning years of effective policing in pursuit of vague notions of social justice.
Is the old America really still out there, waiting to come out of hiding? If so, then this 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks—evoking, as it will, memories of how New Yorkers and their countrymen responded—would be a good time to reemerge.
Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images