On Oct. 16, 2001 I gave a talk titled, “Do They Really Hate Us” as part of the Open Lecture Series that the University of Washington’s Jackson School of International Studies organized to explore the context and consequences of the attacks that had taken place a month earlier, on 9/11.

Originally scheduled to be held in a lecture hall on campus, the response to the series was so strong that we had to move the presentations to the Hec Edmundson Pavilion, with a capacity of 9,000. Thousands of people showed up that night. There were no interruptions, heckling or protests of any kind. Attendees were somber and respectful and interested in the lecture. People appeared to be making a statement simply by joining so many of their fellow citizens in a public space so soon after the tragedy of 9/11. This was true for all the other presentations in the series, as well.

The sense of common purpose that was so palpable on that October evening was reflective of the national mood at the time. A week after 9/11, both houses of Congress passed near-unanimous resolutions in support of the president and his yet-to-be formulated response to 9/11. In retrospect, it might have been helpful if there were more deliberations about this but the important point is that nobody was sizing up the 9/11 attacks for the benefit they might deliver to one or the other political party.

Looking back 20 years later, it is hard not to be shocked by how much the national mood has changed. Far from seeking solace in each other’s company, Americans have become distrustful of each other. Everything from natural disasters and pandemics to terrorist attacks are immediately, and often solely, discussed in terms of their political implications. 

The divisions of today are due to a large extent to the policies followed by the successive U.S. governments since 9/11. In particular, the George W. Bush administration used 9/11 not to build on the unity that had emerged but to attack Afghanistan and Iraq and declare a war on terror, which had no clear enemy, targets or goal. The 9/11 attacks also became the excuse to build a strong security state at home. 

During these years we have learned to be fearful of people we don’t know, especially if they appear to be “different.” We have become surprisingly tolerant of infringements of our liberties. We have looked the other way when the U.S. government practiced torture, held people in prison at Guantanamo without any charges for almost 20 years, killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Afghan civilians, and spent $1 trillion with little to show for it. We have also ignored the enormous sacrifices the U.S. military made in death, injuries and broken lives. 

I don’t think it is too late for the U.S. to repair the damage it has caused and reclaim the moral ground it has lost. For this, however, there has to be a real accounting of all the mistakes going back to the immediate aftermath of 9/11 itself. The tragedy we all watched at Kabul airport last month was not the result of a single botched evacuation. It was the result of a series of policies that were conceived and implemented by U.S. governments with grandiose visions of making the world “safe for democracy.” 

The U.S. will have to own up to the mistakes of the past 20 years that have cost so much in material and moral terms. Without such a reckoning, the pronouncements about “rule-based international order” or America being a “force for good,” will continue to ring hollow to the majority of the people in the world.