Steven Malanga joins Brian Anderson to discuss the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the sense of patriotism that emerged in their aftermath, and the nation’s waning interest in Islamist terrorism.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks Podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the Editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today, Steve Malanga, the Senior Editor of City Journal, a frequent guest on this show, and the George M. Yeager Fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

Steve is the author most recently of “When Flags Waved.” It's a piece that's up now as part of our week-long series on the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

On today's episode, we'll talk about September 11th, its fallout, and its enduring significance. Steve, as always thanks for joining us.

Steven Malanga: My pleasure.

Brian Anderson: Now your article really starts off by talking about how the attacks mark, not just the start of a kind of new American era, but the end of an old one in America, where bipartisanship was still possible, where public servants, especially police could be viewed as heroes, not villains, and that the country was able during that period, as both of us remember well, to rally together against a common enemy, around a common cause. So what has changed between now and then? It seems a very different landscape today. And were the seeds of today's divisive country visible at all in the aftermath of 9/11?

Steven Malanga: Yes. They were actually visible, if you looked closely, although I think they were marginalized. I think the seeds we could actually see in the rise of a kind of far left anti-Americanism in universities going back, especially to the '90s and the late 1980s, which was almost a hangover from the '60s and '70s. But we saw it after 9/11, although it was very marginal and unpopular. In fact, City Journal ran an article by Harry Stein and Kay Hymowitz about the reaction on campuses, which was very different from the reaction across much of America. There were, I guess, maybe two components of this. One was a blame America, it was our fault the terrorists attacked us. And the other was a kind of, I don't know, new agey, we shouldn't seek retribution anyway because it leads to a downward spiral, discounting the idea that that we needed to protect ourselves.

So you saw that there and also maybe in the year or so after 9/11, you began to see it in very progressive cities. Again, this included mostly university cities and maybe some kind of left-leaning cities.

Brian Anderson: San Francisco, Berkeley.

Steven Malanga: Yeah, where the city councils there began to pass resolutions against the war on terror saying that they were going to refuse to allow their police officers and their public servants to cooperate with that. Again, this was fairly marginal. I mean, there were healthy debates going on about things, certainly about whether we should attack Iraq, but these were beyond those debates. They were a kind of form of anti-Americanism. So you saw it, but it was extremely marginalized. I think even in City Journal, we used a very dismissive headline about what was going on in the campuses.

But 20 years later, the people who were the students of those professors and were perhaps taking place or taking part in those protests, they're now kind of grown up and they're maybe even parts of the new progressive movement in which this kind of blame America first has become prevalent essentially. So yes, we could see it there in retrospect, although it seemed marginalized at the time.

Brian Anderson: Let's look at New York a bit. Really this whole era has been marked by three major crises, starting with 9/11, then we had the financial crisis, and now most recently, of course the pandemic. But how did the 9/11 attacks change the city in your view? It's infrastructure, the way it went about security, basically the character of the city?

Steven Malanga: Well, one thing that I argue is that it changed it much less than we thought it was. The outlook for the city in the aftermath was, as you can imagine, a lot of it was doom and gloom and some of it seemed warranted, certainly. There were reports in newspapers of firms and big companies in New York now seeking space outside the city so that they wouldn't be a target.

I think there are a couple of things. First of all, one of the biggest changes which people would perhaps notice was in the NYPD and the way the city decided to take control of its own security. What many people don't remember, unless they've read the 9/11 commission report or books like The Looming Tower, is that 9/11 was a giant failure of our security apparatus. I know that might sound familiar to people, and it is distressing that 20 years later, we've seen something similar in Afghanistan. But there were many, many warnings about what was about to happen, including from the foreign security services. In the aftermath of 9/11, the NYPD, which is a very big organization, decided it was going to essentially put in place its own security apparatus. And they were going to send out their people around the world to make contact with foreign security agencies, because they felt they could no longer trust the FBI and the CIA.

And we have documented in a series of stories since then, including some by, for instance, Judy Miller, that one could look up called Target: New York, which is on our website, we have documented the way that the NYPD have foiled a number of budding terrorist attacks. It's been hard to stop the lone wolves like the fellow who drove a truck through Chelsea in Manhattan several years ago. But the number of terrorist attacks that have been foiled, most people don't understand exactly how many plots we've effectively stopped, and the NYPD has had a hand in that.

If you talk about the infrastructure of New York City, the thing is certainly with regard to 9/11, the infrastructure we talk about is lower Manhattan and specifically the World Trade Center, and there, government was largely in charge of that. And that represents, I think, one of the biggest failures of 9/11. The site down there and the rebuilding of the site down there got caught up in all kinds of political agendas. There was a movement to have nothing rebuilt there at all, to make it just one giant memorial. The idea that we would rebuild towers there and have commerce there seemed to some people almost sacrilegious. This went on for a very long time until it almost reached a sense of paralysis. And ironically, because of that, what we wound up with down there are a series of larger office towers again, and a return to the idea of lower Manhattan as a center of commerce.

But that almost happened by default because the-

Brian Anderson: And a significant financial cost, right?

Steven Malanga: Yes, yes. Right.

Brian Anderson: There was just an insane amount of money that wound up getting spent.

Steven Malanga: Right. Right. And you're referring particularly to the PATH center there, the infamous Oculus, which it's essentially a train station, a subway station. And the original design was for a $500 million station. It actually wound up costing a billion dollars and drove the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey even further and further into debt. And that was a large boondoggle.

But beyond that, what happened was that Larry Silverstein, who had been the private developer that was running, managing, the World Trade Center, continued to push for years and years to rebuild. And finally, I think just out of a sense of exhaustion, he pushed forward and we actually wound up with a series of towers. One of the reasons why is because one of the buildings that fell on that day was 7 World Trade Center, which wasn't even part of the footprint that the government controlled there. It was something that Larry himself owned and because the government didn't control that he rebuilt that quickly. And that stood almost in stark contrast to what was happening downtown to the rest of the site.

And so eventually we wound up with something, but again, this was a kind of classic government failure. Fortunately, again, that was the part of New York, the only part of New York, that was impacted, if you will, directly by 9/11. The rest of the city, despite all the fears about how it would never recover and it was a target and therefore people wouldn't invest in it, after people got back to work and got back to business, the rest of the city continued the expansion that had to begun in the mid '90s and actually in the last 20 years, up until the point of COVID, went through a whole new series of growth as basically the city just got back to work again.

And that was something that was outside the purview of government, except to the extent that government controls or regulates any kind of private development. And that I think is maybe the most encouraging thing about the aftermath of 9/11. Most of the grim predictions turned out not to be true.

Brian Anderson: Now, you mentioned, of course, Islamist terrorism in this context. It's something we covered extensively in the magazine over the years, but I have to say we've covered it less of late. In the 2000s with the memory of 9/11 recent, and you had the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ongoing, it was hard not to think about Islamic terrorism. And then in the last decade, in the 2010s, there were the spate of attacks which we saw by ISIS in Europe, or at least a motivated by ISIS. And that of course kept Islamist terrorism in our minds as well. But of late, less so. The grandiose talk of a clash of civilizations that we heard so much about after 9/11, we don't hear as much about that anymore. But we've just seen Afghanistan fall back into the hands of the Taliban after two decades, with a very shambolic retreat on the part of the US. Without asking you, Steve, to prognosticate on this, isn't it possible we may have over-corrected from our earlier focus on Islamist terrorism and that now we're perhaps not thinking about it enough?

Steven Malanga: Well, let me give you the optimist take on that. The optimistic take is that we succeeded to a very large degree, and certainly for someone who remembers the fears, who remembers walking the streets of Manhattan and wondering what was going to happen next, what was waiting to happen, we succeeded so well that it began to fade from people's memory. And more importantly than that, it's been 20 years. We have a whole generation of people coming forward, living in places like New York, who didn't experience this. That's actually a success. And it's a kind of inevitability. The analogy that I have I think is also with the whole defund the police movement right now, it's the same thing that many of the people behind it, the younger people behind it-

Brian Anderson: Have never had, yeah.

Steven Malanga: -the social disorder that we saw in the '70s and the '80s and so they're quick to know offer solutions, if you will, to current problems that might actually make them worse. I think there's a bit of that in what you're describing. In fact, I'll give you an anecdote that I remember after 9/11. George Bush, as President, walked into a meeting of military leaders and the intelligence people. And he said, "Eventually the American people are going to forget about this. They're going to move on. It's up to us not to forget." The most distressing thing is unfortunately I do think our leaders have forgotten. What we have seen in Afghanistan is an example of how rather than reforming our security apparatus, rather than understanding where the focus needs to be, we have forfeited that over the last 20 years, and getting that back is hard.

Brian Anderson: Sure. To come back to this specific piece you've written, “When Flags Waved,” and the question of patriotism, how might we again foster the kind of common cause that was flourishing in the weeks and really months after the attacks? We don't want to bank on a disaster or hope for disaster to bring us together again, that would be quite perverse. So is there a way to cultivate this spirit, this shared sense of purpose again in America, which as we noted earlier is very divided these days?

Steven Malanga: Well, first of all, you're absolutely right that it does seem perverse, and it's not only in our era and it wasn't only after 9/11, that essentially it's when things look bleakest that people actually are most willing to seek reform. And that almost seems inevitable. There's this phrase that actually goes back to John Adams, which is, "The worst, the better," right before the American revolution in the letter, he was actually telling people. The worst things seem the better our odds are of creating something new out of this.

So that's a kind of an historical pattern. What I would say is different right now is that many of the issues we confront right now, we did confront starting with the '60s and the '70s, and we dug our way out of them, everything from policing to foreign policy, and we dug our way out of them. As a result of that, we have a roadmap, if you will. In the '60s and the '70s we didn't have a roadmap, let's say, for crime, and they made a lot of mistakes as a result, but we have roadmaps now. And it's up those of us who've written about and talked about and understand those roadmaps to keep emphasizing them.

And I think we're already seeing, if you think of some of the things that are going on, let's say, for instance, something that City Journal's very close to, the reaction against critical race theory. I think we are seeing around America, people are understanding what some of this kind of far left progressivism that we're confronting actually amounts to. And they're willing to stand up and say, "This is not what we bargained for." And so I think that that the best opportunity right now is that a lot of what ails us is part of something that we understand the solutions to because we've seen them already, and I think we need to continue to emphasize how we have changed and saved ourselves before. And that there is a roadmap out there. So I think that'll be crucial for the next coming years.

Brian Anderson: Thanks very much, Steve. This piece that he has just written, it's part of our week-long series on 9/11, it's called “When Flags Waved.” You can find that and Steve's other work on the City Journal website. We'll link to his author page in the description. You can also find City Journal on Twitter @CityJournal and on Instagram @cityjournal_mi.

Brian Anderson: As I always note, if you like what you've heard on the podcast, please give us a ratings on iTunes. Steve Malanga, always great to have you on the show. Thanks again, and have a good afternoon.

Steven Malanga: Thank you.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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