What happens when a generation forgets? Credit: Porter Gifford/Corbis via Getty

September 4, 2021   6 mins

September 11, 2021

Dear Bobby,

I wanted to warn you that only one of my three kids will show at the 9/11 memorial in lower Manhattan this year. Roman finally exploded that the reading of all those names every frigging September (though he didn’t say “frigging”) has got “kill-yourself boring”, even if one name is his uncle’s.

For Ettie, who was only two at the time and can’t remember you, 9/11 belongs in the same dusty bag as Woodrow Wilson and the League of Nations. Just out of college, she dismisses the memorial as an exercise in archaic patriotism — itself a celebration of “white supremacy”. I know, I know. That expression used to refer to a few kooks in peaked white hats. It now functions as an indictment of the entire country. And that’s just the beginning of what you’ve missed out on.

I’m hoping that bringing you up to date about the past two decades will partially restore the breath-taking sense of perspective that descended on me that monstrous morning. Although the weight on my chest was almost unbearable, I do miss the accompanying clarity.

To my chagrin, I’d suddenly been elevated to American royalty: I’d lost an immediate relative to the attacks. I soon grew weary of the deference. I didn’t want to feel special. After all, part of that clarity was realising the country itself wasn’t as special as we’d thought. People have been attacking other countries since forever, especially rich countries full of people who think they’re special.

Not that I believe we deserved it, mind. Just that shit happens, even to the United States, which we might have learned from Pearl Harbor. And sisters have been losing their brothers forever, too.

Everyone was nice and kind and open in the immediate aftermath, as if the shock had shattered the shells we hadn’t even realised we were cocooned in. The force of collective mourning was so overpowering that nothing else seemed to matter, which frankly made the conduct of prosaic daily life rather difficult.

Having still to remember that we couldn’t have tacos again tonight after having had tacos just three days earlier was embarrassing. Funny, I got into a huge fight with Roy, when I pointed out about ten days in that now no one was going to give a flying fig for a documentary about how “attachment parenting” turns your kids into little shits; all that mattered about kids now was that they had parents at all.

Roy exploded. He couldn’t believe his wife could concern herself with anything as petty as her career at a time like this. I said, well, at least it took me a whole ten days to even remember that, oh, crap, a year’s work just swirled down the sewer. In our family mythology, I was the selfish one, and Roy found the typecasting useful. By the way, and you won’t be crushed, because you never cared for his high-horsery: we’re divorced.

Epiphanies are lies. They seem to offer a radical realignment of how you look at things for the rest of your life, but actually they’re just tiny wrapped-up presents that you can peek at but don’t get to keep, and then you snap right back to seeing everything the same way again. It took New Yorkers only a day or two to get competitive about who’d lost someone or knew someone who’d lost someone, who was closer to downtown at the time, whose neighbourhood stank worse, and whose sidewalks were more covered with that awful grey silt. 9/11 brought in a whole new hierarchy, but it was still all about status, so New Yorkers were simply reverting to the same rivalrous assholes they’d always been.

It’s been especially brutal for me that when you died, we still weren’t speaking. And we fell out over what? Bush v Gore! I can’t even dredge up the details we got so exercised about—something about chads and military ballots and “cherry-picking”. Okay, our whole family couldn’t get over my having voted for “that idiot”. You accused me of merely trying to distinguish myself from my liberal family out of desperation for a separate “identity”, but at the expense of throwing the country under a bus. Honestly, in retrospect, I think I just didn’t care for Al, whose dreary sanctimony reminded me of Roy. FYI, our pal Al, always fleshy, is now fat.

Obviously, that 2000 election ripped the country in half and put us all at each other’s throats. At first, 9/11 seemed to mend that rift. But only with a basting stitch, whose straggled threads broke years ago. No one cares about terrorists anymore. Americans save their animosity for each other. As for contested elections, the last one takes the cake. Two-thirds of Republicans think the 2020 presidential election was stolen, without a shred of evidence. Like, practically half the electorate thinks voting is rigged and fake. That’s way worse than some too-close-to-call in Florida, and even Al had the grace to concede. So that sensation of us all being in this together, that warm feeling of communal suffering while walking down Broadway? Long gone.

The other revelation 20 years ago was, wow, there really is such a thing as an enemy. There really are people out there who hate this country and want to destroy it, and it was pretty disturbing that I’d never noticed before. Well, kiss that insight goodbye, too. These days, no one seems to pay the slightest attention to enemies outside the country. They’re all in the country. Our very President — Joe Biden, believe it or not, and no, he’s not dead, or not quite — claims the biggest threat to the US is “domestic terrorism”. He’s not talking about Islamic nutjobs with visas for going to flying school, either, but about white people — and not even the white people burning down black-owned businesses in the interest of “social justice”.

So never mind China (massively more dangerous than in your day), or Russia, or Iran, or the tons of terrorists in Africa and the Middle East still plotting more mayhem; all that matters is “systemic racism” right here. You’d think this country had never elected a black president (surprise!) — twice (double surprise!). You’d think 9/11 had never happened — that we’d never been shaken up, never looked around wide-eyed at the big scary world out there. We’re back to squabbling with the other children in our grubby private sandbox.

When the South tower collapsed with you in it, I also thought: my God, there is such a thing as evil. Such a thing as truly horrible, despicable people who do horrible, despicable things. And now our compatriots think “evil” means asking someone where they’re from or complimenting a foreigner’s English or using the wrong pronoun. If Ettie and her friends ever came face-to-face with proper evil, smoke would come out their ears and their brains would short out.

After the attacks, we blathered endlessly about defending “freedom”, but no one gives a tinker’s damn about freedom anymore. For 18 months they’ve “locked down” swathes of the country, telling everyone to close their businesses and stay home. That’s what now passes for “liberty and justice for all”, and practically nobody complained.

Maybe that’s because no one feels safe saying anything more controversial than their shoe size. If you announce what might have seemed self-evident 10 years ago, like “women don’t have penises”, you can lose your job, and the only place I’d dare to type such heresy is in an unposted letter to my dead brother.

You’ll be glad to hear we attacked Afghanistan in your memory, but less happy to learn that we only left that slagheap, tail between our legs, ten days ago. The Taliban are back in power, and aside from leaving them as one of the best equipped fighting forces in the world — with $86 billion’s worth of our gear — everything is the same. Oh, we finally shot the Jesus-y creep who ploughed a plane into your office, but two trillion dollars is a stiff price for one hit job. Eight years of occupation of Iraq cost nearly the same money and accomplished the same nothing.

I need to get ready for that memorial, so this will be rushed. In 2008, the financial world went blooie. Though we’ve technically recovered, we’re still tippling on the edge of a sheer drop; my finance guy’s advice is: “Don’t look down.” In 2016, we elected an inarticulate, narcissistic blowhard as president, who made us an international laughingstock. Now we’ve elected an elderly puppet with encroaching dementia who draws not contempt but pity; he’s spending money as if medically incapable of remembering that he already spent all of it last week. The government is in hock $23 trillion and counting (your eyes are bulging), and if the dollar is ever replaced as the world’s reserve currency — this is your bailiwick, Wee Willy Wall Street — we’ll all be huddled around campfires with meat on sticks. Or soy protein on sticks. Yum.

Back in 2001, it was medieval fanatics who denigrated our country as decadent, degenerate, corrupt and irredeemably amoral. Now the leadership of all our institutions — universities, arts foundations, corporations, even the Army and CIA — has taken on the smear job for them, happily trashing the country as wicked and unsalvageable. It’s a form of the entrepreneurship we’re so famous for: Americans have learned to terrorise themselves.

By the way — although well into production, my new documentary on “cancel culture” has just been cancelled. Imagine the hilarious late-night debrief you and I might have enjoyed as I drip-fed you the ironic details. One more of our jousting, wine-soaked sibling powwows would have more than compensated for my wasted work.


Lionel Shriver is an author and journalist. Her new essay collection, Abominations, is published by the Borough Press.