Where were you when you first learned that Princess Diana had died? How about when you became aware of the 9/11 attacks? The anniversaries of both events (Diana’s death occurred on August 31, 1997; the 9/11 attacks took place in 2001) have been the subject of no small amount of commentary of late, much of it concerning how much the world has changed since the shocking news of both events upset our collective sense of security, if not our dreams of Camelot.
Di’s death was shocking because it seemed so unfair that her life was cut so tragically short. Just 36 years old, the Princess of Wales had revitalized the British monarchy with a youthful, iconoclastic attitude about her own royalty and that of her husband and mother-in-law. She had become beloved by the masses, both there and on this side of the “pond.” Her work with charities, primarily aiding the underclasses of society, appeared heartfelt, so that, by her death, she had become very much a people’s princess.
And then, suddenly, she was gone, killed in a bizarre traffic accident that seemed a mix of keystone cops and film noir as she and her lover sought to escape the ubiquitous cameras of the paparazzi. Her marriage to Prince Charles, having been a charade for years, had, by then, ended in divorce, as he pursued an affair with the woman he would ultimately marry while she sought, with an Arab prince, the intimacy she had undoubtedly missed in her marriage.
Now, twenty years later, no one in the royal family has taken her place. Her older son, William, has married, and Princess Kate appears to be a pleasant woman. But neither she, nor her husband, nor her brother-in-law, nor anyone else in the family, has developed anything close to the iconic status that Di had. Instead, the monarchy has been largely ignored as Brits have chosen to withdraw from the European Union and Elizabeth lives on, seemingly intent to deny Charles the throne forever. Britain is assuredly a sadder, even angrier, place since Di’s death. And so, in many respects, is the rest of the civilized world.
Most of us remember how we learned of Di’s death. The news came out on a Saturday night in California. My wife and I were at a restaurant with friends. Our younger son, then 14, told us when we got home. I remember my first reaction being one of disbelief. “No, son,” I think I said, “I’m sure you’ve misunderstood the news.” But, of course, he hadn’t. I had just not wanted to believe it.
I had a slightly different reaction when I saw the images of the World Trade Center towers, ablaze and soon to crumble, on that morning of September 11, 2001. I watched in confusion as the reports came in of the two planes that had crashed into the towers and of the two others that had also crashed, one into the Pentagon, the other into an empty field in Pennsylvania. The first estimates were that as many as 10,000 would be found dead. Days and weeks later the count settled below 3,000. Still a horrible number, especially considering the suddenness and horrific manner that many died (with some jumping to their deaths from the heights of the towers so as to avoid the intense heat the flames were causing).
Those old enough to have experienced the attack on Pearl Harbor made immediate comparisons, and the sense of outrage and fury that the two attacks created was undoubtedly similar. But the similarity did not extend to the nature of the enemy. Pearl Harbor was a foolishly miscalculated attack by a foreign power. The 9/11 attacks were a carefully planned event by a fanatic group of fundamentalist Muslims who wanted to disrupt the Western way of life.
The enemy that attacked Pearl Harbor failed in its attempt to gain world domination. The enemy in the 9/11 attacks continues to threaten civilized society years after its leader, the infamous Osama bin Laden, was killed. As it turned out, it was a lot easier to defeat a military might of a foreign government than it has proven to be to defeat an ideology that lauds the deaths of its own soldiers/suicide bombers as paths to paradise.
The civilized world, led by the United States, set out to destroy the forces of evil that 9/11 represented. First we went to war in Afghanistan, where we have remained for sixteen years. The enemy there is no longer al-Qaida. It isn’t even ISIS. It’s the Taliban, which had given al-Qaida carte blanche to train its “army” within the country. No longer in control of the country’s government, the Taliban continues to seek the theocracy that would impose Sharia law over the country.
The decision to wage war in Afghanistan was a debatable one (but only one Congressperson, California’s Barbara Lee, voted against the authorization granted to President Bush). The later decision by Bush and Cheney to invade Iraq was surely as misguided and poorly considered as Japan’s had been in attacking Pearl Harbor over 60 years earlier. And the results have been at least as disastrous for the U.S. now as they were for Japan then.
Al-Qaida in Iraq became ISIS, which then rose up against the new Iraqi government to take over large parts of that country and of neighboring Syria, thereby claiming to have established a caliphate, which, years later, is finally giving up its geography, if not its claim of righteousness. The result of the reaction to 9/11 has been a far more aggressive form of terrorism and a far greater number of would-be martyrs who are all too happy to wreak havoc with hateful acts of violence on wholly innocent civilians.
I wrote in the days following 9/11 that our world would never be the same. In that prediction I was correct. What I didn’t know was how very different it would become.
Princess Di would now be 56 had she lived. Query whether Brexit would ever have been contemplated had she continued her good work? Osama bin Laden might still be alive, plotting aimlessly in Arabic deserts, had his 9/11 attacks never succeeded. ISIS probably would not have come into existence. Query whether Donald Trump would have even considered running for president had the “War on Terror” never been waged.
Civilized society mourned when Diana died, and it suffered greatly when the 9/11 attacks occurred. It’s important to remember both events. But it is even more important to assess where we are now, these many years later.