A memorial to a nation in pain. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

September 13, 2021   5 mins

I intend, however much provoked, never to have a fight on a plane. It’s so undignified: even the biggest of men can’t find the space to land a real blow. Hemmed in by seats, they flap about foolishly and end up banging their knuckles on some random hard surface before giving up and being pulled away by long-suffering cabin staff. CNN showed a montage of these conflicts on their domestic news channel, ending with one chap who sat back in his seat, almost tearfully, before snarling like a dog and eating his mask.

The proximate cause of this upsurge of air rage is masks of course. We Brits have our own mask conflicts, but they usually end with some tutting or a sarcastic tweet. Americans bash each other in the aisles.

What are they thinking? The CNN air-rage compilation was shown the night before the 9/11 anniversary. On planes around the nation – perhaps some of the featured flights — families of the victims would have been travelling to Pennsylvania, to Washington DC and to New York. Among them was Deborah Borza who lives on the west coast. When we talked last week, she told me how much she missed her daughter Deora, who at the age of just 20 had managed to get a standby seat on a flight across the nation to see her mum. It was Flight 93.

There was a real fight on Flight 93.

At the Pennsylvania memorial ceremony, President Bush didn’t specifically mention the political weaponising of the pandemic measures but he did say this:

A malign force seems at work in our common life that turns every disagreement into an argument, and every argument into a clash of cultures. So much of our politics has become a naked appeal to anger, fear, and resentment. That leaves us worried about our nation and our future together.”

An example of what he meant: The Federalist, a Right-wing website with a big readership but no clarity about its funding, suggested in a headline on the very day of the 20th anniversary ceremony: “The Left hates America and ordinary Americans at least as much as the 9/11 hijackers did, and for some of the same reasons.”

There are certainly some Americans who cannot stand their country, and it’s fair to point out that a good many white Left-wing Americans seem in the modern age to have a problem with their own skin colour, but this smearing of a wide group of people so offensively, so callously, is breath-taking, or would have been back in the days before 9/11.

It’s as if the anger and frustration that welled up that day, spending 20 years rushing around the world, never quite finding a proper satisfying target, has boomeranged home.

But there is more to it than anger. The context is the creation of a society ripe for conflict.

Why is this?

The New Yorker writer Evan Osnos has just published a book about the state of the USA which has a stab at an answer.

The terrorists would not have known it, but in the years before and immediately after 9/11, local papers were closing all over the nation. Local papers with local news, about which you could complain to a local editor. Papers that told you what was going wrong and going right too because that is what people (normal people not reporters) like. Papers that provided careers for nosey clever people that kept them in Boise Idaho or Normal Illinois. All of this replaced by scandal sheets online, bottom-feeding for clicks. And tumbleweed in Main St, as everyone lost interest in the community or believed it to have died.

Wildland, The Making of America’s Fury is not the first weighty book to point out that modern American inequality is untypical of the nation’s history and sapping of its soul but the impact of inequality on community is a subject that needs to be more fully explored. Osnos writes about what happens when institutions move out of town but also what happens when money moves in: literally and metaphorically people cannot see each other’s houses any more. It happened, he says, in Greenwich Connecticut, always a comfortably off town, but when the hedge fund folk moved in, a walled town. They stopped their McMansions from being seen. Privacy, leading to suspicion. Reducing shared experience, and, he argues, providing the essential breeding ground for something worse than discord: a place that, as President Bush put it, “turns every disagreement into an argument”.

During the week I spent in America for the 9/11 ceremony, the atomisation of the nation continued apace. The state of Missouri, far from the centres of power in recent years, is now trailblazing the new American normal. A measure passed by the Republicans who run the state gives people accused of federal gun crimes the right to sue local police if they co-operated with an FBI investigation but that investigation eventually found no wrong. You can carry a weapon concealed and loaded in Missouri, but nowhere in America — thanks to federal law — are you allowed to sell it to a felon. So, the federal law is no small deal here.

But the point is not the extra gun danger the new law seems to impose: it’s the ingenious way in which ordinary citizens are co-opted, via the courts, into enforcement of what Missouri lawmakers regard as second amendment rights. They have done the same with abortion in Texas, where those who dislike it are encouraged to sue individuals who have enabled abortions to take place.

Fissiparous is not a word much heard in Missouri (and certainly not in the Lone Star state) but that is what this is.

It feels to many like a radicalisation of Americans; an encouragement to turn against each other. And a challenge to the authority of the federal government which enforces the basic fact of nationhood.

It is fair to say that the Left encourages this too, via so called sanctuary cities where federal rules about immigration are openly and proudly flouted. Now — via Missouri — we are to have “second amendment sanctuary cities” as well. It doesn’t bode well for peace or cohesion.

The reflecting pools that have taken the place of the twin towers in New York are a work of genius. Each square pool is an acre in size; the water cascades noisily but neatly down the four walls and is gathered in a central shaft. It disappears but you cannot see the sides of the shaft. You cannot see where it goes.

The message is that nothing dies because everything was here and because it was here it has stamped itself on time. A nation capable of asserting this, and doing so with such stark beauty in the heart of a busy city, is a nation not yet dead.

The 9/11 memorial is not a bad ground zero for a nation in pain. Rebuilding is always possible — Lord knows it has been done before — but the first job, as it was when the memorial was proposed, is to be clear about the enormity of what happened.

Then: to gather up the wreckage and start afresh.

Justin Webb presents the Americast podcast and Today on Radio Four. His Panorama documentary “Trump the Sequel”, is available now on  Iplayer