On this eve of the 20th anniversary of that day we will be beaten over the head about how we should never forget it tomorrow, and about how it changed America, I feel it is important to point out that 9/11 did not actually change America- it just destroyed the illusion of what America was that had lingered since the end of World War II for many white US citizens who learned that illusion in school and in other forms of mass propaganda.
I say this as someone who has worn a military uniform: something less than 1 percent of people who now live in this country can say, which makes them like every generation other than those who served in the Civil War and both World Wars. I am loyal to the country of my birth and proud to have served it, and I did so knowing that most would never do what I did. (It also paid for my college education, which honestly is why most people of my generation believed they joined the military for). But loyalty does not mean you need to be blind to reality- you just have to keep trying to make things better and never give up.
You hear a lot about how 9/11 unified us, and how the deaths of nearly 3,000 people who did not sign up for dying in service to their country suddenly altered the character of America. Maybe it did, in that it enabled many of the civil liberties we had learned were normal as white Americans to be suspended (except this wasn’t much of a change for many) and for racism and hate to be pointed in another direction for a while. Call it the common enemy interlude in the perpetually divided history of the USA.
The legacy of 9/11 is that we are now back to hating each other with as much vigor as before, and our xenophobia is now pointed at everyone not like us. We have a “nativist” party that is trying to destroy all the internationalism this country has built after WWII, and a centrist big tent party split between status quo incrementalism and various other ideologies that can’t manage to shoot the fish in the barrel that their opposition are.
In other words, we’re where America has always been: a country but not really a nation, a place of vast inequality where the wealthy have increasing power and throw the rest of us scraps out of noblesse oblige (or marketing optics), where immigrants are villainized unless they’re the “right kind” of immigrants, and religion is used as a coercive force.
So 9/11 didn’t change America. It was the end of the illusion of the 1990s that history had ended and we had won and now everyone could just get along the way corporations wanted us to. Trump was us getting back to the worst of America, so we can recognize that we need to have more than a common enemy to fix this country.