20 Years Later

On this 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I can’t help but remember that fateful day. Although two decades have passed, the memories of the burning, smoking towers, watching the TV news and seeing the planes converted into missiles to achieve the murderous goals of al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, and feeling that the whole world was turned upside down, are still fresh and painful. As that terrible morning of shock and horror ended, we were able to go pick up the kids from school, and one of my lasting memories from that day was the immense feeling of relief at getting the kids into the car and bringing them home, where our family could all be together and we could be sure that all of us were safe and secure. I’ll never forget that feeling.

Twenty years is a long time, and today is a time for reflection. A lot has happened in the years since the attacks. America is still here, of course, but there is no doubt that the country has changed in the interim. That shouldn’t come as a surprise. A shock like 9/11 is bound have some long-term consequences, like a colossal rock thrown into a pond causes ripples that ultimately touch every part of the pond’s shoreline. The key point now, in my view, is to focus on where we go from here. The war in Afghanistan is over, and obviously it ended badly. How does the country respond to that reality, and will we finally learn the hard lessons that we have been taught at the cost of twenty years of fighting, thousands of American lives, and billions, if not trillions, of dollars? Or will we forget those lessons the next time a tragedy tempts a President to take the country into another foreign adventure?

And more fundamentally, where is our country headed as a free, democratic society? Just this week President Biden announced that an administrative agency is working on an emergency regulation that is designed to affect the jobs and livelihoods of tens of millions of people who have made a choice to remain unvaccinated and the companies that employ them. Those of us who remember the Schoolhouse Rock song about the process of how a bill becomes a law wonder how in the world the President can presume to exercise such extraordinary power without hearings, amendments, and ultimately a law passed by Congress that specifically authorizes such sweeping action. But in the years since 9/11, we’ve gotten used to Presidents ordering deadly drone strikes, changing policies set by prior administrations, and imposing new obligations with the stroke of a pen.

In a way, has the long road that began with 9/11 led us to this point, where Presidents feel they can unilaterally exercise such vast powers, without the checks and balances that we learned about in Civics class? And, however we may feel about the best way to deal with the COVID pandemic (and for the record, I’m vaccinated), are we comfortable with a form of government where the executive branch, and in many instances unelected administrative agencies, wield all of the power and can issue emergency decrees that would have profound impacts on the lives (and bodies) of millions of Americans, without Congress, as the collective representatives of American citizens and our diverse communities, having voted to require that course of action, set the structure for how the action will occur, established the rules, and determined the penalties for non-compliance? The likelihood that the Supreme Court undoubtedly will ultimately have its say doesn’t make up for the fact that Congress, which was intended to be the primary instrument of government, has withered into insignificance and plays no role in debating and setting such important national policies.

It’s a lot to think about on a quiet Saturday morning, 20 years after a shocking day that we will never forget. But 20 years provides some perspective, and anniversaries are good times for reflection.

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