Fifteen years later, nothing epitomizes the darkest impulses of America’s political reactions to the disaster of 9/11 than Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. That day spawned many legacies, many currents; some were communitarian and noble, some were predatory and fearful. Trump’s campaign embodies the worst of it all.
After the initial shocks of 9/11 waned, a collective wisdom seemed to emerge that a dark civic response - xenophobia, fear mongering, Big Brotherism and vigilantism - would only compound the tragedy. There were ferocious debates about how to respond, debates about privacy, civil liberties, military action, intelligence operations, torture, foreign policy and religious tolerance. Perhaps my recollection is naive and revisionist, but the atmosphere around our arguments then, tendentious as they were, was not filled with nativism, paranoia and rank scapegoating.
Presidential candidates and top politicians did not call for banning Muslims from the United States. Party leaders didn’t repeat as fact discredited urban myths about Muslims in New Jersey cheering the fall of the Twin Towers. No one wanted to build a wall all along the Mexican border or deport all illegal immigrants. It took 15 years and Donald Trump to hit these lows.
This is not at all to say that our country and our leaders did not make horrible, preventable mistakes in response to 9/11. We obviously did. The Iraq War, justified on a foundation of untruth, was the mother of all mistakes. We sanctioned torture, renditions and filled Guantanamo Bay’s prison cells indefinitely.
The country also replaced the Republican regime responsible for many of our worst offenses. We didn’t elect strongmen or demagogues. We didn’t stop debating and disagreeing and protesting. We didn’t give into the dark, though the dark side did have its triumphs.
Fifteen years later, we are closer to the dark side in the form of Donald Trump.
For sure, fear of terrorism isn’t solely responsible for the rise of Trumpism. But neither is the economic discontent of the white working class. Trump has preyed on both those fears - and more - by demonizing scapegoats, exaggerating threats, instigating racism and promiscuously promising simple, strongman solutions to everything. These are all the worst demagogic tricks we worried about after 9/11.
Politicians of both parties bear heavy responsibility for enabling one thread of Trumpism relative to 9/11 and its 15th anniversary: our exaggerated fear of the danger of terrorism to Americans.
It has become almost heretical to even suggest there is such a thing as being too scared of the threat from terrorism. No politician is willing to say such a thing, though President Barack Obama tried to correct course last year in speeches explaining how terrorism was not an “existential threat” to the United States. He was obviously correct, but he abandoned the project.
In cold statistics, terrorism is not a significant threat to the health and safety of Americans.
From 1970 through 2014, 3,305 Americans were killed by terrorism in the U.S. When deaths from 9/11 are eliminated, the number falls to 397. Since 9/11, the odds of an American being killed by terrorism are roughly 110 million to 1.
To put these numbers in context, consider that well over 30,000 Americans die every year from car accidents. About 50 people die every year from lightning strikes. Every day, 20 vets commit suicide, according to the Veterans Administration.
For political reasons, we have started to label some atrocities as terrorism that previously would have been called mass murders, such as the killings this year in San Bernardino, Calif., and Orlando, Fla. Every possible terrorist threat and action gets the full attention of our media and politicians. Not so other ways of dying. Since 2001, there have been 7,916 homicides in the city of Chicago alone. Fears and threats are subjective things, influenced by culture and politics, for good and bad purposes.
Like no other presidential candidate, Trump has poured gasoline on the fears of many Americans - fears about terrorism, immigrants, the changing look of America, crime, globalization and making ends meet.
At a much more fragile moment, after 9/11, Americans broadly, if imperfectly, resisted these kinds of fears and thoroughly rejected the dark populist fear-mongering that is Trump’s specialty.
There could be no more fitting and noble commemoration of the 15th anniversary of 9/11 than for Americans to reject Donald Trump - decisively and proudly.
Dick Meyer is Chief Washington Correspondent for the Scripps Washington Bureau and DecodeDC.