9/11 was a ‘pattern break’ for US society

Today we face another – what have we learned?

WHAT I REMEMBER most about September 11, 2001, was feeling lucky that I could walk home. I was at a meeting at the Meridien Hotel in Post Office Square, and when news of the attacks in New York City broke, the entire building was evacuated.  Observing the sea of people who had gathered in the Post Office Square Park, the first thought that came to mind was: “This must be how people felt in London during the blitz in the 1940s.”  My second thought was literally more pedestrian: “Thank god I can walk home”.

We had recently moved to the South End from East Boston, and being able to get there on foot, in the fresh air, was a comfort in a disorienting moment. And so I walked, through Chinatown and across the Turnpike bridge at Tremont Street, to what was then our home. My husband owned a bookstore on Tremont Street, and I walked there first, to see him and watch the news unfold on the small TV behind the counter. Many people had gathered there to do the same thing, and the bookstore became for a moment a place of community refuge and information.  After a while I walked home, turned on the news, and, like most Americans that day, watched unthinkable, unspeakable events unfold in real time.  It was not a day easily forgotten.

Few in that moment understood fully what was happening or why; fewer still reflected on how those events might permanently change our lives.  What we know in retrospect is that 9/11 was a pattern break, one of those moments in history when something so impactful takes place that some aspects of life as we previously knew it change permanently.  Not all pattern breaks are rooted in national trauma.  The invention of moveable type was a pattern break, as was the mass production system that rolled out Model T Fords in the early 20thcentury.  Once those events took place, life in many ways changed forever.

After 9/11, what changed most visibly was urban physical design and air travel. Flying changed permanently, largely as a result of security systems that were not in place before the tragedy. So, too, did the ways we enter most urban office buildings and all public buildings. Many important buildings that were considered potential targets of future attack were initially surrounded by ugly concrete highway barriers. Eventually those gave way to design elements that disappear seamlessly into the streetscape and provide near-invisible hardscape protection from a vehicle that would be used as a method of assault.  Our expectations of privacy have also changed, as we willingly offer up personal information in order to get TSA pre-clearance privileges.

A United Airlines flight slams into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

9/11 also triggered an unfortunate militarization of local police forces.  Funding provided by Congress under the auspices of national security has been used to supply armored vehicles for towns as small as Sanford, Maine, with mine-resistant armored vehicles designed for military use. Sanford, population 22,000, actually has two of these. This militarization of local police forces is a good example of the excesses that come from national paranoia, with its bizarre sense that the best way to respond to attacks from extreme foreign fanatics is to turn our local peacekeepers into military fighters. It hasn’t worked out well, has it.

Our long overdue departure from Afghanistan may close yet another chapter from 9/11. The necessary focus of national effort and resources in the immediate aftermath of the attacks took on a life of its own. But a president with the understanding that comes only from deep experience has moved us forward, away from futile foreign-nation building and toward our own, more urgent nation building here at home. That’s the thing about pattern breaks – yes, they change some things forever, but we still have the ability to control how we implement those changes, how we set our national priorities, how we build a better nation.

Today we face a pattern break of a different kind – one that has taken many tens of thousands more lives and that has had a different, yet powerful, traumatic impact on our lives, and that of course is COVID-19.  If September 11, 2001 was a national shared experience, COVID-19 is that on steroids. No one can escape its impact and influence. Had we developed a durable national cohesion following 9/11, had we built a stronger more connected and collaborative nation, we might be having an easier time managing through this pandemic.  But in this respect 9/11 was a lost opportunity. A brief moment of national unity quickly ebbed, and slowly washed away.

We are more threatened today by domestic violent extremists than we are from foreign actors, and that should be a sobering reminder of how we collectively have squandered the best lessons of 9/11. In a moment when medical advice has become politicized; when insurgents attacked the nation’s Congress as it was about to certify a fair election that was not even close by any historical measure; when the power of ubiquitous social media is too often misused to mislead, incite, and divide, then we might want to ask ourselves on this solemn anniversary: what have we learned from the trauma and pain and sacrifice of September 11, 2001?  Is this the nation we hoped to build after that tragic event? Can we, even now, redirect our energy toward building a more cohesive, inclusive, and compassionate society?

Meet the Author

Franklin Roosevelt once said that “courage is not the absence of fear but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.”  We were all fearful of the unknown on September 11, as we are fearful today about COVID-19. Can we overcome our fears, and focus on national objectives more important than the fear? That is the question I ponder on this anniversary, a question perhaps we can all consider and answer affirmatively for the sake of our country and its future.

James Aloisi is a former Massachusetts secretary of transportation and serves on the board of TransitMatters.HJAT