Ten years ago, I was in my final year of university studies. I was taking a course that surveyed 20th century American history. The first thing we discussed was the fact that the historical beginning of the 20th century was not 1900 or 1901, but was in fact 1917, when the nation plunged into a horrible, bloody world war. It wasn’t until 1917 that the United States awoke from the dreamlike Golden Era of the late 19th century to the nightmarish realities of the 20th century.
The War to End All Wars turned out to be a fitting prelude to what seemed like the century to end all centuries. The ’30s witnessed a decade of economic instability and depressions. A second world war dominated the ’40s and heralded the uneasy era of nuclear weapons. The ’60s were ushered in by the violent murder of the president while a horrified nation looked on, and were plagued by civil unrest at home and an endless, pointless war overseas. The ’70s are defined by unprecedented economic woes and the loss of faith in our nations highest political office. The ’80s were laced with Cold War tensions.
As I prepared for class that Tuesday morning 10 years ago, I didn’t know what to make of anything. There was a numbing effect to watching the inky black plumes of smoke fill the skies over Manhattan and Washington. It quickly became obvious that this was an intentional attack on America, and I realized that this would be the defining moment of the inchoate 21st century.
Wilsonian foreign policy presided over the entire span of the 20th century, ostensibly making the world safe for democracy. At the dawn of the 21st century, the Bush Doctrine became the keystone to America’s role in the world, making the world safe for American exceptionalism and imperial expansion.
Ten years later the war that was launched in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks still rages on. The PATRIOT Act provides federal law enforcement agencies unprecedented and nearly unlimited power to eavesdrop, investigate, incarcerate, torture, and punish citizens of other nations and U.S. citizens alike under the vague rubric of “terrorist activity.” Americans have rationalized and even encouraged the ramping up of the police state and the belligerent empire, saying that giving up privacy and liberty is worthwhile for the perceived security gained by such concessions.
If my hunch is correct and 9/11 was indeed the harbinger of the 21st century (as it would appear, since ten years hence, little has changed), then this is the world that my daughter, grandchildren, and perhaps great-grandchildren will grow up in. The die is cast. God help us.