Stop With the 9/11 “Unity” Nostalgia

America was never united — pretending we were papers over real injuries and makes addressing them harder

Tim Wise


Image: World Trade Center in the 1970s, Mr.TinDC, Flickr, Creative Commons license

It didn’t take long once the towers had fallen and the Pentagon had been left bleeding from the gaping wound gouged in its side by American Airlines Flight 77.

The embers outside Shanksville billowing from the remains of United Flight 93 had likely not even cooled before we began to hear it from commentators, politicians — from all corners of the nation.

United We Stand.

The slogan was everywhere: on bumper stickers, the lips of pundits, and in letters to the editor of every newspaper in America.

The attacks of September 11 had brought us together, or so we were told.

In heaps of concrete and steel lay not only the remains of a few thousand of our people but also our political differences, petty squabbles, and childish bickering — all vaporized along with luggage, office furniture, flesh, and bone.

America was now unified, not merely in grief but in our commitment to one another. Osama bin Laden had laid waste to our partisanship and unified us as a people in ways unseen since World War Two.

Yellow ribbons began to pop up on tree trunks and windshield magnets. People who had never been to New York bought merchandise branded with the logo of the NYPD and the FDNY to show their gratitude for the officers and firefighters who had died that day or faced death to save others.

Twenty years later, amid the loss of nearly 700,000 Americans from COVID-19 — a toll that makes bin Laden look incredibly unambitious by comparison — and rising right-wing insurrection aimed at the same government (and even one of the buildings) al Qaeda targeted, we are being treated to more than a bit of unity nostalgia.

“What happened to us?” some wonder.

“We were so unified back then, and now look,” come the lamentations of others.

Some have pointed out the goodwill towards police that rose from the fires that day, longingly contrasting it with increasing hostility to law enforcement in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.



Tim Wise

Anti-racism educator and author of 9 books, including White Like Me and, most recently, Dispatches from the Race War (City Lights, December 2020)