That Monday afternoon, September 10 of 20 years ago, was a gorgeous one in New York City, the type of crisp, dry, sunny day you get in the transition between summer and fall – teasingly undecided between the two seasons, boasting the best each has to offer. I spent it touring John F. Kennedy Airport, with the man in charge of all New York area airports, the executive director of the Port Authority. He was trying to prove to me (and through me to my colleagues on the New York Times editorial board, and our readers) that Terminal 5, the old TWA terminal that historic preservationists considered an architectural treasure that must remain operational at all costs, was no longer usable. Near the end of our wanderings through the airport, he invited me to a breakfast meeting and presentation the next morning at Windows on the World, atop the World Trade Center, another jewel in the Port Authority’s empire. I politely declined; I had no desire to trek down to Lower Manhattan for something at 8:30; plus, I couldn’t miss our 10 o’clock Tuesday ed board meeting.
Neil Levin didn’t survive his breakfast, and the world changed dramatically for all of us when those two airliners slammed into the World Trade Center’s twin towers that Tuesday morning. The next few days, weeks, and years, we all processed our own grief, our what-might-have-beens, our own 9/11 stories (all poignant in their own ways), and we all shifted gears, to focus on other things.
I am fascinated by how these epochal hinge dates of history prove pivotal for individuals going about their private lives, as well as for entire communities and nations. And as we approach the 20th anniversary of 9/11 – a milestone rendered more poignant by the recent US pullout of Afghanistan, and the return of the Taliban – I have been reflecting on some of the unseen casualties of the attacks and its two-decade aftermath.
The US-Mexico relationship was among those unseen casualties, one of several pressing concerns that was neglected in the shifting of the gears. It is hard to remember the sense of possibility surrounding talks between the George W. Bush and Vicente Fox administrations on the eve of 9/11. Just the previous week, President Fox had come to Washington on a state visit, and had been feted, as Mexico’s most legitimately democratic leader in the country’s history, at a White House dinner and before a joint session of Congress. President Bush, a border state Republican with ties to Mexico and a desire to advance a “compassionate conservatism” and a business-friendly guest-worker program, seemed keen to reach an ambitious new deal with Fox, across a range of thorny energy, security, and migration issues.
There had been one inauspicious omen hinting at the American inability to focus on its own neighborhood the previous February. When Bush visited Fox’s Guanajuato ranch in his first foreign trip, the day’s agenda was hijacked by a US bombing mission over Iraq to enforce a no-fly zone imposed on Saddam Hussein by UN sanctions. But never mind that, by early September the mood in Washington was receptive to rethinking priorities and asserting the paramount importance of the relationship with Mexico. The cross-border spike in unauthorized northward migration posed political challenges to any ambitious new deal, but there was a still a consensus in the US that Mexicans crossed the border to work, and were an asset to the US economy; ascendant anti-immigrant populism had yet to dominate the Republican party to the extent that it does now.
For those of us eager for a closer, more intentional US-Mexico relationship that maximized North America’s shared potential, those were heady days. Then everything changed, stasis ensued; whatever deterioration in ties would have naturally resulted from neglect was only magnified by American frustration with Mexican incomprehension with being left at the altar. Mexico empathized with the US sense of shock and grief for days, weeks, and months, but its leaders couldn’t understand why Washington couldn’t ever get back to that pre-9/11 moment, and pick up where it had left off. Surely a great superpower could walk and chew gum at the same time, even if the gum-chewing was fighting wars halfway around the world.
There is no way of knowing what the tenor of the US and Mexico relationship would be nowadays had 9/11 been a day like any other, and there is a danger of overstating how easily all issues could have been resolved in the absence of the attacks. But as the Biden administration prepares to dust off a modest “High Level Economic Dialogue” with its Mexican counterparts this week, it is hard not to think that so much precious time has been lost, time when attitudes towards Mexico hardened across segments of American opinion. And that’s without even factoring in all the changes in Mexican politics since the hopeful transitions of 2000-early 2001 that were unaffected by what would have been a closer relationship with Washington.
The idea of progress is that we move forward, inspired and informed by where we have been; that it is never too late to recalibrate and refocus on important priorities, however much they have been neglected in the past. But for all this, it is important not only to remember where we were as individuals and as a nation on 9/11 itself, but also on the actual and metaphorical 9/10.
* Andrés Martínez is a professor of practice in the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University and the editorial director of Future Tense, a Washington, D.C.-based ideas journalism partnership between ASU, Slate magazine, and New America .Twitter: @AndresDCmtz