September 11, 2023 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

How naive I was

Nearly 3,000 dead Americans used to mean something.

Screenshot 2023-09-11 3.46.43 PM

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Today is the 22nd anniversary of September 11, 2001, the unforgettable day when terrorists under the leadership of Osama bin Laden, head of the al-Qaeda terror group, flew jetliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Nearly 3,000 Americans died that day, most of them instantly. 

Three-thousand – that number has stayed with me. It seemed to be a threshold of sorts in American politics. I used to think that if 3,000 people died as a consequence of politics, which is what 9/11 was, the people of this country would respond the way they did after that day, as if the thing that had killed 3,000 people were an existential threat.

How naive I was. I suppose my first clue came on May 11, 2011, the day Bin Laden died. The consensus by then, long-established, was that he was a monster who was deserving of death. Yet instead of jubilation, the response from much of the country was muted, as if he were not a monster, after all. Otherwise, the response wouldn’t have been so tepid.

One 9/11 inspired a patriotic reaction from the Republicans while 390 9/11s have not. What about their vision of America can we learn from this?

He was a monster. The problem, for much of the country, wasn’t that he was killed. The problem was that the wrong president was responsible for killing him. If they celebrated Bin Laden’s death, they risked celebrating Barack Obama’s accomplishment, which was unthinkable for much of the country. He wasn’t America’s true president. He was an insurgent – maybe even a terrorist himself – bent on destroying America. Because of him, they had to “take their country back.”

But it was the pandemic that disabused me once and for all. The administration of Donald Trump was negligent, incompetent and corrupt. For a brief moment, I thought, as the body count climbed toward 9/11 levels, that perhaps the Republicans, who had been protecting Trump from himself, might finally turn on him, believing at the very least that a derelict president had outlived his usefulness. 

The body count kept rising, though, and nothing in the way of a patriotic September 11-style reaction came from the Republicans. Ever. The death toll surpassed 3,000. Then another 3,000. Then another, then another. First it was dozens of 9/11s. Then scores of them. Then hundreds of them. More than 1.17 million have died. That’s 390 9/11s.

Not only did the Republicans fail to respond for the sake of the country, as they seemed to after September 11, they failed to respond for the sake of their own supporters. After the coronavirus vaccine became widely available, most Republicans in Washington and elsewhere stood by while it was turned into a symbol of fidelity to Trump. Getting the shot was a sign of betrayal. Not getting the shot was a sign of loyalty. 


The consequence was hundreds of thousands of “excess deaths” during the second wave in rural Republican-controlled states, according to a new study. While some of that can be attributed to a lack of health care infrastructure in rural areas, much of that can be attributed to “vaccine hesitancy fueled by a toxic mix of partisanship and misinformation,” said Dr. Andrew Stokes, one of the leading authors of the study.

So one 9/11 inspired a patriotic reaction from the GOP while 390 9/11s didn’t. What about GOP patriotism can we draw from this? First, that the success of Black president can’t really be a success on account of his being a Black president, and that the failure of a white president can’t really be a failure on account of his being a white president.

Second, that a patriotic reaction depends on the enemy. A brown Muslim who conspired to hijack jetliners and fly them into buildings represented an existential threat to America. Those 3,000 dead could not be allowed to have died in vain. The “war on terror” commenced. 

However, a white “Christian” who neglected to perform a president’s most fundamental duty was no such threat. There was no war against anything, because that would have meant a war against ourselves. Did hundreds of thousands of Americans, who died in loyalty to Donald Trump, die in vain? Maybe. But the Republicans don’t seem to care. If hundreds of thousands of “excess deaths” are power’s price, so be it.


That number used to mean something to me — that if 3,000 people died as a consequence of politics, which is what 9/11 was, that the people of this country rise in unity against an existential threat. 

How naive I was.


John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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