PART ONE: EVERYTHING IS ABOUT COVID NOW

As the COVID-19 pandemic spread rapidly across the country and the death count in the U.S. crossed 100,000, observers noted the indifference that the Trump administration had to the whole thing. Whether by incompetence or by malice, the federal government seemed to be incapable of addressing the pandemic or showing any human emotions about it.

“But wait,” said the netizens, “2,996 people died on/as a result of the September 11th attacks and the federal government immediately plunged us into a war that, nineteen years later, we’re still fighting. 100,000 people died from the coronavirus and it’s somehow not a big deal?”

I’ve already talked about risk before but a quick recap. Human beings are very bad at risk assessment. What makes an event a tragedy follows this formula:

[ human assumes activity is low-risk ] + [ human dies from activity ] + [ other humans also assume activity to be low risk ] = tragedy

Plane crashes are assumed to be a risk of plane travel, so while unfortunate, plane crashes aren’t necessarily seen as a capital-t Tragedy. Hijackings were once assumed to be a risk of plane travel, but by 9/11 that was seen as more of a 1970s problem. Planes being intentionally hijacked to be used as missiles to attack office buildings was not a risk the average person had considered even once, and that made 9/11 a big deal.

In contrast, we’ve all had a cold or a flu before, and so people had a very hard time understanding (a) that COVID-19 is way worse than the normal cold and flu experience and (b) that actually we wouldn’t have a cold and flu season if people didn’t bring their disgusting germs to work or school or the Golden Corral.

In the particularly lethal flu season of 2001-02, more than 57,000 people died, far more than died on/from 9/11. But people die from the flu every year and illnesses are hard to see and did I mention that people are not good at understanding risk?

Anyway.

PART TWO: IN THE DAYS FOLLOWING 9/11

The War in Afghanistan begins in October 2001. A surprising number of people think Afghanistan is an oil-rich country, so let’s clear that up right now: it sure is not. Afghanistan is a resource-poor country and one that most Americans probably hadn’t thought much about in decades, if at all, by 2001. Its fundamentalist government, the Taliban, was known to have worked with Osama bin Laden, and the U.S. had strong suspicions that bin Laden was behind the attack.

Why? Well, bin Laden had repeatedly issued public demands for the U.S. to get out of the Middle East (where the U.S. had maintained some presence since the Gulf War) and he had orchestrated terrorist attacks before, including against U.S. embassies and a warship, the USS Cole.

Initially, bin Laden proclaimed that he was not involved, which was pretty unusual – if he or his network, al-Qaeda, did something, they took credit pretty fast. There were two responses to this: (a) bin Laden must not have been involved or (b) bin Laden must recognize that This One Is Different.

See, the previous attacks had targeted things that were unlikely to have everyday folks in them, like embassies and a warship. While Americans viewed these attacks as reprehensible, when you join the diplomatic corps or the armed forces you should expect to occasionally be in harm’s way, so there was an acceptable risk involved.

That isn’t to say that there wasn’t an interest in responding. In fact, from the earliest days of its government, the Bush administration was trying to figure out how to deal a major blow against al-Qaeda. One of the major problems was that it wasn’t clear how al-Qaeda had been involved in the USS Cole bombing. It was undisputed that the organization benefited from the attack, but they had never claimed responsibility and there weren’t, like, video records of terrorists explaining their criminal schemes.

In December 2001, the U.S. uncovered a video record of bin Laden explaining his criminal scheme. A tape revealed bin Laden discussing the 9/11 attacks with Khaled al-Harbi, an old friend of bin Laden from the Soviet-Afghan War of the 1980s. American government analysts insisted the language in the tape implied foreknowledge while independent analysts disagreed and said that the tape merely discusses the attacks with no clear indication that bin Laden knew about them beforehand.

All that finally becomes moot in 2004, when bin Laden declares that he was, in fact, responsible for 9/11 and that he personally ordered the attack.

PART THREE: 2004 IS NOT 2001

By 2004, the United States has toppled the government of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The Iraq War is pitched to the American people as being either an attempt to rid the country of weapons of mass destruction or because Hussein’s government gives shelter to terrorists. The 9/11 Commission rules in 2004 that Hussein is not at all related to the September 11th attacks and, in 2006, Hussein told American investigators that he had lied about having weapons of mass destruction to appear strong in front of Iran. No functioning chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons were found in Iraq, although older non-functioning chemical weapons, believed to have been from the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, are discovered. We’ll come back to this.

Believe it or not, Americans are still pretty solidly behind the Afghan and Iraq wars at this point. One reason is that there’s no draft.

4,507 American service members will die in Iraq by the conclusion of the war in 2011, and another 57 will die in the war with the Islamic State in Iraq. 2,420 American service members have died in Afghanistan as of September 11, 2020.

The wars are also waged by mercenaries, known by their media-friendly name “private military contractors.” The Pentagon loves PMCs because you don’t have to report their deaths and you don’t have to pay death benefits to their survivors. At least 4,000 PMCs had died in Iraq and Afghanistan, although the real number could be much higher.

In an all-volunteer army, though, the risk is seen as something you accept when you sign up. There’s no draft, so you aren’t required to join. Sure, economic conditions in the U.S. are rough, especially in 2007-11, and a lot of people are joining out of economic necessity, but those people are assuming the risk. The nearly 11,000 Americans who died in Afghanistan and Iraq knew that was a risk when they went in and no one forced them to sign up.

At least, that’s how people felt about it back in 2004, when the body count was lower and the search for weapons of mass destruction was ongoing.

PART FOUR: FAKE NEWS

As it became clearer that the U.S. had lied about the reasons for the Iraq War, public opinion shifted.  72% of Americans favor the Iraq War in March 2003 as the war kicks off. By March 2005, that’s fallen to 47%, equal with the percentage of Americans who oppose it. By January 2007, 61% of Americans oppose the war.

In March 2003, Americans believe that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction. Colin Powell, an internationally-respected diplomat, said they did, and that’s genuinely good enough for most people. Hell, I believed Colin Powell.

2005 gets off to a rough start, with near-constant suicide attacks and the assassination of a prominent politician in Iraq. Still, Iraqis take to the polls and hold an election considered to be free and fair. Americans see the willingness of Iraqis to vote and try to build a better country as validation.

In 2007, President George W. Bush announces ‘The New Way Forward,’ a plan to add an additional 20,000 troops in Iraq. There are continuing attacks against Americans and nothing seems to be getting better in Iraq.

The American people want to know why we went to war in Iraq. Was it for weapons of mass destruction? Around five hundred chemical weapons are discovered in Iraq, but none of them are operational. “It is very interesting that there are so many that were unaccounted for,” weapons expert Charles Duelfer tells NPR, “but they do not constitute a weapon of mass destruction, although they could be a local hazard.”

Was it because Hussein was involved in 9/11? The Bush administration pitched a broad ‘War on Terrorism,’ that included any country that the U.S. wanted to label as harboring terrorists of any flavor. This included places like North Korea that have never been tied to al-Qaeda. The U.S. claimed, though, that al-Qaeda members were given free reign to move and operate in Iraq, and that this was proof that Hussein supported al-Qaeda.

Weirdly enough, Iraq did harbor Abdul Rahman Yasin, who designed the bomb used in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center – yes, that World Trade Center – and provide him financial support. Yasin was interviewed in an Iraq prison by American journalists in 2002; Iraq had offered to transfer him to U.S. custody but it never happened. The whole deal around Yasin is kind of weird, especially because his current whereabouts are unknown. He has not been seen or heard from in eighteen years.

Once Americans believed that the Iraq War was not justified and that the reasons for it were fabricated, it changed how they saw the risks of the war. After all, people who signed up for the war did so under the pretense that the risk of death was justified. This is another important part of risk: the reward. If the risk is death but the reward is making the world safer, that’s perhaps easier to accept than if the risk is death but the reward is big oil contracts.

PART FIVE: OIL

“We need to bomb something else to prove that we’re, you know, big and strong and not going to be pushed around by these kinds of attacks.”

U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, September 11, 2001

In a 2019 piece for Al Jazeera, Associate Professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University Ahsan I Butt rebuffed claims, often made in America and Europe, that the invasion of Iraq was an effort to capture the country’s oil wells. Instead, he pointed to a concept known as the ‘Ledeen Doctrine’ that claims that the U.S. engages in a limited-scale war against a small country every decade or so to demonstrate that American military power remains pre-eminent. The Iraq War was one of these Ledeen Doctrine wars, Butt said, and in particular happened because Afghanistan was seen as an already weak, unstable country.

This puts the U.S. policy of “shock and awe” into perspective. Invading Iraq for the spectacle of invasion means putting on a show so other countries – and the terrorists they may be sheltering – understand that the U.S. means business. Iraq is a response to 9/11, to the USS Cole bombing, to everything that has been lobbed against the U.S. over the previous few years. It doesn’t matter whether Iraq was involved in those things; Iraq was involved in the Gulf War, it was a dictatorship, and it was considered to be a regional power. This was going to be a “splendid little war” that proved that the United States still had the power and the force to respond to acts of aggression.

The Ledeen Doctrine explanation makes a lot more sense than the oil explanation for another reason: this is not the most efficient or cost-effective way to get access to oil. Well, okay, for the oil companies it was, because the taxpayer bears the burden of paying for the war. But hear me out.

The concept put into place in Iraq was that oil companies would buy Iraq’s oil and the leases paid to the Iraqi government would pay for the reconstruction of the country and its transformation into a democracy. This was pitched as a major advantage to the war because the U.S. taxpayer wouldn’t have to pay for the rebuilding of the country we were going to drop bombs on and roll tanks through. Instead, we’d make it up to them by fueling up our cars at the Mobil station and ExxonMobil would buy leases to get that all-important black crude.

This did mean that Iraq couldn’t have its own nationalized oil industry. It also meant that the whole framework was in place and ready to go which sure did look suspicious to the average observer. And it isn’t like oil companies haven’t wanted access to Iraq for years – they were pretty public about how it would be great if the U.S. could open up the country, please, however you have to do it is fine.

The U.S. could have forced Iraq to open its oil by other means. The country would have sued for peace after a light bombing run and there you go. No, there had to be a war and it had to be big and grand and spectacular. There had to be proof that when you cross the United States you get taken out. There had to be –

PART SIX: THE 9/11 FUND

In 2013, Donald Trump tweeted, “I still can’t believe we left Iraq without the oil.” At that point, Trump was the host of a reality television program and the owner of a business empire mostly focused on hospitality and luxury brands. Trump had sought the presidency in 2000 and had been considering a bid in 2012.

It’s important to consider the context of what Trump meant. American companies have access to Iraq’s oil fields, but they have to pay the Iraqi government for that access. To Trump in 2013, the whole system was wrong: U.S. companies shouldn’t be paying the Iraqi government for its oil, they should be taking it as payment for the “liberation” of Iraq.

This one-off tweet in 2013 was seen at the time as proof that Trump held fringe political views. Yet in 2016, he won the electoral college and became the 45th President of the United States. Since taking office, he has repeatedly tried to rework the U.S.-Iraq oil framework, even telling Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi that “a lot of people have been talking about the oil.” The oil that, I cannot stress enough, American companies have pretty unrestricted access to as long as they pay for it.

Trump’s role as patriot-in-chief is central to his popularity among conservatives. He has professed to have been involved in the 9/11 cleanup efforts – something people involved in those efforts have furiously denied. 

But this isn’t exactly new. Republicans have often used 9/11 to show their love for America but with no follow-through. GOP legislators used 9/11 as a rallying cry to support tough anti-terrorism measures that disproportionately affected people of color and, ultimately, as a rallying cry for multiple wars. Trump made ending those wars a campaign promise, but he hasn’t followed through – even when the Iraqi government asked the U.S. to draw down its military presence. New Yorkers had to push Republican legislators to agree to establish and later renew funds for 9/11 first responders, something they were hesitant to do on multiple occasions.

In 2009, when it was proposed to create a new federal program to help those affected by the 9/11 attacks, Republicans balked at the $7.4 billion cost of the program (the Iraq War is expected to have cost $1,922 billion, according to a 2020 study by Boston University political science chair Neta Crawford). Republicans used the filibuster to keep the bill from advancing; a compromise bill introduced in 2010 coupled with a damning episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, in which Stewart spent the full episode discussing the bill with 9/11 first responders, led to its passage. A decade later, the bill was renewed with minimal opposition but, once again, required a publicity effort by Stewart before Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would allow it to come up for a vote.

On September 10, 2020, the New York Daily News broke the story that the Trump administration has underfunded a program to treat 9/11 first responders. According to the Trump administration, this is because of a conflict with the federal government and the city. Exactly what is the conflict? Unknown. Roughly $4 million has been withheld from the fund.

The fund is extremely important because, well,

PART SEVEN: MASKS

“Our people were wearing at best hospital masks of paper, so tens of thousands of people are sick as a result of the way this was handled. It’s tragic, and it’s sad that more people are sick and dying from this than died on that actual date.”

David Worby, attorney for 9/11 workers

Gotcha. You thought this was some kind of retrospective but no, sorry, everything’s about COVID.

Without getting into jet fuel and whether it can or cannot melt steel beams, two buildings collapsing in midtown Manhattan spreads a lot of really bad things into the air. By the mid-2000s, it was clear that those really bad things were causing problems. Fire fighters, police officers, Port Authority workers, and contractors were all coming down with weird respiratory illnesses, and the only thing they had in common is 9/11.

First responders accept certain risks that come with their jobs. Firefighters are at risk of fire, police officers are at risk of assault, Port Authority workers are at risk of having to go to the Port Authority Bus Terminal, etc., but none of them saw as a risk exposure to chemicals from the interior or from underneath the World Trade Center.

Workers compensation initially declined to cover these illnesses for construction workers and certain first responders, prompting some lawsuits. The traditional funds that exist for this kind of thing aren’t designed for this kind of thing – that is to say, workers compensation funds aren’t built to handle thousands of major simultaneous claims. Insurance is built on risk, and the risk of a 9/11 happening was seen as incredibly small.

There are now several different funds, including New York State Workers Compensation, that cover 9/11-related illnesses. Nearly two decades after the attacks, the illnesses – not to mention the mental trauma – remain with us.

PART EIGHT: CONCLUSION

Nineteen years after the September 11th attacks and the world feels like it gets more complicated every day. Risks are all around us, whether we like it or not. It seems obvious to us in 2020, but no one who worked in the World Trade Center thought their office was a risk – certainly not in the way it turned out to be. We know now how fundamentally flawed the rationales for the Iraq War were but for someone who saw the 9/11 attacks and heard Colin Powell say that Iraq was a threat – there’s a reason nearly three-quarters of Americans supported the war. We know, perhaps better than we ever have, how important masks and personal protective equipment are in a crisis, but we also know that in a crisis we will risk our own safety to help another, and we instead take the risk that we will not be left behind by our country when the danger has passed.

The story of September 11th and the years that followed is the story of an America coming to terms with new risks: terrorism, deceit, incompetence, disinterest. Our foundation today is unstable, our political system in disarray. The risk in front of us may be much, well, riskier than the ones behind us. The rewards, more stark. Do we remember September 11th as a time we were tested and came together or do we remember it as a time we were attacked and sought revenge?