A generation has come of age that cannot remember September 11, 2001, either because they weren't cognizant of the world around them, or because they did not exist in the world yet. To them, the horror of that day is a distant abstraction. The innocence of the pre-9/11 era is long gone, replaced by a seeming cultural malaise brought on by a financial crisis, a reality TV star's fiasco presidency, a still-ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and the climate change Al Gore tried to warn us about. America's national unity in those aftermath days, when the rubble still stood in lower Manhattan, seems almost impossible to believe ever happened. Senseless hatred of other people, on the other hand, remains a sad reality, even if the target of the day is now our own medical professionals.
In October of 2001, US special forces descended on Afghanistan to remove the Taliban from power, after they refused America's demand to hand Osama bin Laden over. On August 30th of 2021, Major General Chris Donahue was the last American soldier to leave a country that had almost suddenly fallen right back into Taliban control after two decades of insurgency. The question is begged: what exactly was accomplished? Al-Qaeda was weakened, bin Laden was killed by Seal Team 6 in 2011, and Afghan women were allowed to live like human beings for two decades. Yet ISIS now represents a potential terror threat much like al-Qaeda did, and the Taliban shows little sign of being any more interested in women's rights now than they were 20 years ago. To call it a "mixed bag" is probably one of the less controversial ways to put it. Give the Senator from Delaware credit for one thing - and Joe Biden becoming President at some point was one of the few predictions that would have seemed plausible in 2001 - it was his personal conviction that the band-aid of Afghanistan's bureaucratic inertia be ripped off.
Iraq, after Bush's spuriously-justified invasion in 2003, Barack Obama's withdrawal in 2011, and the five year war against the horrific Islamic State, is now relatively stable and relatively democratic, relatively speaking. It seems fair to say that the military deployments of the War on Terror, stuck in the back of society's mind after Bush left office, have been drawn down to the level of small detachments of American advisors helping other countries with their own insurgencies.
The worst person I ever knew once told me that America deserved 9/11. Bin Laden was a hateful lunatic who masterminded the death of thousands of innocent people, an act that was wildly disproportionate to anything America had done in his neighborhood. Yet his goal was to provoke the hated, decadent US into a conflict that would bleed it dry. America is far from dead or dying, by my estimate...but it certainly has bled, in more ways than one. (Who would have thought twenty years later we'd watch more Americans die every day from a virus they actively refused to take seriously?) Afghanistan and Iraq bled too, because the Bush administration chose war as their response, and with 20 years of hindsight it's hard to say that war was the best possible response.
In September of 2001, the internet was a smaller place. Slower and more difficult to use, but a lot less poisonous than social media in 2021. The music industry was reckoning with Napster allowing all sorts of piracy; now they're a lot more accepting of internet music streaming ever since they figured out how to make money from it. The average netizen was on the whole a curious, vaguely lefty type, perhaps the diametric opposite of the stereotypical conservative baby boomer on today's Facebook, who saw disinformation as something the mainstream media did. Not something people willingly did to themselves - with some help from shameless, malevolent grifters and politicians - in an oversaturated information landscape that lets them create their own reality of alternative facts to live in. IRC was an open protocol in its heyday, not yet displaced in use by a closed platform that offered multimedia support. The closest thing anyone had to an internet meme was the Hampster Dance website, while today's meme culture can best be described by a quote from VeggieTales:
In the future, humor will be randomly generated.
Twenty years ago, mobile phones were as thick as a wallet, and you wouldn't ever consider trying to browse the web, or read a book, or play a game more complex than Snake, much less hold dozens of gigabytes of data, on one. The Columbine shooting two years earlier had inflamed passions now dulled by waves of far bloodier massacres that gun worshipers on the street respond to with bulk firearm purchases, and gun worshipers in Congress respond to by doing nothing. Moral guardians thought things like Marilyn Manson and cartoony shooters were making kids commit these acts of violence. Now it's the youth who play, on the whole, far gorier games and listen to far more explicit music who tune out while their parents go insane with rage at the evils of liberal democracy and vaccine science. And since the year 2012, Age of Empires II has received no less than six new expansions. (For the record, Doom also received three sequels - and Duke Nukem Forever came out in 2011. It was an awful mess of a game.)
Twenty years ago, nobody cared much what you did in an airport.
If I could send this node back in time, would anyone believe me?
In a number of ways, I would say we have reached a post-9/11 era, but I can't say it's all better now than it used to be. I can't say the shadow of the Twin Towers is gone just yet. I guess that's a way of saying we're still on our way to the future, whatever that may end up being.
There are times I wish I could have been an internet user back then, to experience what existed in an age before social media was even a twinkle in Silicon Valley's eye. To be part of a site like E2, if I had to be more specific. I feel like it's natural to have nostalgia for an age that seems simpler and more sensible than the present moment. An age that I can never experience firsthand or recreate, because the world is now a far different place, at once more connected to each other and more atomized into all manner of various groups by social media.
Yet here in 2021, the future is radically different enough that idealizing and pining for such a past seems less relevant than ever. Most of the old internet ways are gone, and so are a number of ways that started between then and now. The new ways will probably not last for ages either. And at the same time, people use modern platforms much like they used chat platforms two decades ago. They still chit-chat, they still talk about their lives and joke around. In a lot of ways, people will be people - and they don't need to preserve the same old platforms and apps to do that. Life will go on.
The takeaway? It's better to focus on the future, and to focus on making it a better future, because you can change the future more than you can change the past. Don't be like the people using that awful day as a prop for their revisionist histories. Let the dead lie.
Does that sound trite? Probably. The realization struck me while writing this all the same. Will I still think about the past from time to time? Probably. The cultural era between the fall of communism and 9/11 remains a subject of mild fascination to me, considering I was born during it. Will there be a node for September 11, 2041? I don't know the answer to that one.
In any case, here's to twenty more years: of decent people, of trying to make the world a better place, and hopefully peace. I don't know if we'll succeed, honestly, but we need to try.