President George W. Bush speaks through a megaphone beside retired...

President George W. Bush speaks through a megaphone beside retired firefighter Bob Beckwith, 69, to firemen and other workers on Sept. 14, 2001 at the site of the destroyed World Trade Center. Credit: AFP via Getty Images/PAUL J. RICHARDS

What would it look like, almost 20 years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, if the terrorists had won?

That used to be a popular phrase, right? Politicians told us that if we were not able to live as we chose, if we cowered in fear or gave up our freedoms, if we could not move freely or celebrate or exult or love each other, the terrorists could claim victory.

When we restarted the baseball season, and the NFL, and resumed traveling for pleasure and work, and we began to rebuild downtown Manhattan and visit it, we acted knowing that to fail would be to grant victory to Osama bin Laden and his minions.

And over time, the phrase took its place as nostalgia, both a worn joke and an acknowledgment that we had survived, and moved on. “If I can’t eat an extra-rare porterhouse the size of a truck tire on a Saturday night, the terrorists have won,” I’ve told my wife on more than one occasion, thinking it funny because I felt they had not.

But what would it look like if they were winning?

Al-Qaeda never sought a military conquest of the United States. It just wanted to tear us apart, to weaken us internally and force us into pointless and fruitless military conflicts elsewhere, to damage our standing internationally, tear down our economy and turn us against each other.

I’m not sure it isn’t working. I’m not sure the terrorists aren’t winning. I am sure this nation hasn’t felt normal to me for even a day since 9/11.

If the terrorists were winning, we would turn against each other. It would have started with many white Christians and Jews broadly distrusting Muslims from here and abroad, then morph into distrust of anyone who stood up for Muslims or wasn’t traditionally “American.” There would have been a massive buildup of the military/industrial complex here and abroad, causing the nation to expend as much as $10 trillion over time on a combination of homeland security and foreign wars. The spending could never be proven to be entirely fruitless, the American lives lost would always be viewed as heroic, but the wars would achieve little and the price of so much defense and security would be an inability to fund other important needs.

If the terrorists were winning, all the most significant problems we faced as a nation the day before the planes hit would now be worse. We would never have rebuilt our roads and bridges and other infrastructure, never fully funded educational needs or provided broadband everywhere. We would never have restructured Social Security and Medicare to guarantee their full future funding, would never have effectively combated climate change, would never have secured health care for all or passed and enforced comprehensive immigration reform.

If the terrorists were winning, we would be a nation divided. We’d have protests in the streets accompanied by violence and looting, race hatred festering and leaders who’d discarded genial debate in favor of vicious attacks.

If the terrorists were winning, we’d be led by a president who half-jokingly announced he’d seek an unconstitutional third term and delighted in memes promising he’d be president for life. And his jeering and cheering supporters would exult in the way he attacked and degraded all those who did not grant him absolute fealty.

That’s what the United States would look like if the terrorists were winning. That’s everything they could possibly have hoped for.

And what would it look like if we were winning? Certainly not like this.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.


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