For many of us, September 11, 2001, was an introduction — a baptism by fire, as it were — to the swift and terrible power of religious hate. That day was an inflection point that forever bifurcated our lives between the pre-9/11 and post-9/11 world, not unlike the way the Kennedy assassination divided the lives of our parents or Pearl Harbour divided the lives of our grandparents.
That day awoke in many of us a forgotten patriotism that startled us with its purity. For the first time in my life the entire country was united against a common enemy. Every American became my brother, every American became my sister, and the world became our friend.
Of course, a lot of silliness began circulating among the reality-challenged beginning with that day as well. In a misbegotten effort to sound dispassionately fair, some woolly-brained but well-meaning observers insisted that terrorism was the only efficacious means available to the voiceless. I rejected that then as I reject it now, as an observation as instantly refutable as the notion that bank robbery is the only way out of poverty. Besides, lest we forget, Osama bin Laden, the sinister mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks, was himself a millionaire from a wealthy and powerful family.
I saw 9/11 as a personal attack on my favourite city and a personal attack on those fundamental rights I once took for granted, among which include life, liberty, equality and freedom FROM religion. America for me symbolises an ideal that, however imperfectly implemented, says, “I’m fine with how you choose to live your life as long as you’re fine with how I choose to live mine.”
The intolerant monsters behind 9/11 wanted the opposite. They wanted mind control. They wanted Thought Police. They wanted a world theocracy or a world in flames. They would tolerate no middle ground.
I don’t know precisely when it happened, but at some point between September 11, 2001 and today we changed. We passed a point along the way where we can never again be united as a nation in the same way as we were after 9/11. Had September 11, 2001 happened on, say, September 11, 2021, I believe it would have divided us even further.
On the original 9/11 it didn’t matter to me or anyone else I knew that the man in the Oval Office was a Republican. George Bush’s popularity soared into the high 90s and stayed there for a while. I think if Al Gore had won in 2000 his popularity would have similarly soared. What mattered was we were under attack as a people and as a nation, and by god we weren’t going to sit still for it.
Today it would have mattered very much who was in office and what party they belonged to. It would have made all the difference in the world. I’ll explain why in a necessarily roundabout way.
First we must do a little thought experiment. Those of you who pay any attention to what I have written in the past will recall that when the Covid-19 epidemic hit I made the observation that it was a gift to Donald Trump. He could have used that moment in history to unite the country. He could have instantly seen it for what it was and exploited it to save his failed presidency.
But because Donald Trump is stupid he instead used it to divide us further and guaranteed his loss in November of 2020. But imagine if Covid-19 had delayed striking until the Biden administration. Imagine how Republicans would have used it to make sure that Biden got blamed for everything that happened during the pandemic.
It wouldn’t have mattered if Biden had done everything right and done everything better than any other leader in the world. The blame would have been shrill and relentless. Fox News would be full of outrage about how Biden and Biden alone brought the pandemic down upon us. Unlike Trump, Biden would never have been given the chance to show the world what a great president he was. Republicans would have seen to that and the mainstream media would have helped them.
In a way we were lucky, politically speaking anyway, that both 9/11 and the pandemic happened during Republican administrations. Had it been otherwise, both tragedies would be employed today as nonstop cudgels to beat us relentlessly.
As I say, had 9/11 happened today there would be no uniting us. It isn’t because Republicans and Democrats have drifted apart. We Democrats have stayed put. It’s Republicans who did the moving.
Republicans today are no longer patriots. They are theocratic opportunists who love money and power and will use their religious myths to destroy America if they are given the chance. They have become bolder in their contempt for the Constitution and their devotion to Donald Trump and Trumpism. They have become religious hypocrites more fanatical and dangerous than the turn-of-the-century Taliban or the 9/11 hijackers from September 11.
In a way September 11 has happened a second time. Only it happened without crashing a single plane into a single building. Somewhere along the way since that awful day 22 years ago Republicans decided to become just like the enemy we once united against. They became the Taliban, they became bin Laden, they have imitated the enemy we once stood together against. They want mind control. They want Thought Police. They want a world theocracy or a world in flames. They will tolerate no middle ground.
That is the inevitable putrefying consequence of religious intolerance. History is replete with monsters who have used religion as an excuse to divide, to murder, to blame and to hate. That is why America was founded on the ideal of the separation of church and state, and why it will implode under its own weight if that ideal is ever fully abandoned. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.