The date the Champlain South Tower collapsed in Surfside, Florida — June 24, 2021 — may not live in infamy the way December 7 and September 11 do, but it is one that is potentially no less significant for us. The sudden collapse of a large urban building, reduced to rubble in a single crash with major loss of life; the desperate, painstaking search for survivors; the slow acceptance of the calamity’s scope — all this cannot help but bring to mind the similar trauma of the World Trade Center attack 20 years ago.
Of course, the differences are as great as the pictorial resemblance. 9/11 was a planned terrorist attack from abroad, a deliberate act of war. It mobilized not only our own resources but also those of our NATO allies. It was condemned around the world. The Champlain Tower catastrophe was, if anything, a disaster inflicted on ourselves. We have no external enemy to fight because of it. But it should wake us up no less.
In hindsight, 9/11 was foreseeable. It was the product of our long effort to assert dominance over the Middle East and the many wars we have directly or indirectly engendered there as a result. The perpetrators of the attack were, in some ways, our own creation; Osama bin Laden, the chieftain who took credit for it, had begun his career on the CIA’s payroll. 9/11 was violence coming home to us. We did not see it because we were complacent, because we thought ourselves invulnerable, because we believed ourselves immune to the consequences of our acts.
We were wrong, and now we drag ourselves in defeat out of a 20-year war we should never have begun and could never have won. No, the Champlain Tower South had nothing to do with that. But it comes as a kind of exclamation point that mirrors the terrible one that began it, and it suggests a deeper resemblance. Towers of Babel do collapse. And America as a whole, at this moment, resembles nothing so much as a Tower of Babel.
The Tower of Babel (Genesis 11: 1-9) was, of course, a giant structure meant to reach the heavens, a symbol of unlimited ambition and hubris. God destroyed it in Scripture by destroying the common language the builders spoke, thus making them incomprehensible to one another.
We are certainly a nation incomprehensible to ourselves today, and though we share a common language we do not share common meanings, values, intentions or beliefs. If God had been a little more patient in Genesis, he need not have changed a word of what men spoke. He could simply have let their common meanings erode and disintegrate. It has happened here. On Jan. 6, our closest approach to a national Tower of Babel, the Capitol Building, did symbolically come down. Although its doors and windows have been repaired and those who work there carry on, there is no common language, and the American President who thinks he can find one is destined for disappointment.
The Capitol Building was built on foundations that have long become shaky. The Champlain Towers complex was built, like many around it, on porous limestone through which saltwater intrudes. It was poorly designed and, in some places, shoddily constructed. The warnings conveyed in its last structural assessment were ignored, if noticed at all.
There are no doubt a great many buildings in the United States that answer to such a description, and a great many more whose sheer dilapidation requires no building inspector to certify their impending collapse. The same goes for roads and bridges, and the general connectivity we call infrastructure. They are all related and, if you will, wired together.
On the one hand, we do not build the things we use to last, or maintain them properly if we do. On the other hand, material structures themselves are of no value except to serve human communication and interaction. Although the Digital Age has vastly increased the possibility of such interaction, it has degraded it as well. The internet serves as a source of information but also as a font of lies that has increased the noise of Babel. We have gained facts but lost truth.
And now, one more wreck lies before us: the shell of Bagram Air Force Base, the pivot point of our long-failed and now to-be-abandoned war in Afghanistan. It was once a 14-acre city, the command center and beating heart of the war begun for us by 9/11, a place raised from the dust and now already to returning to it. It, too, was a Tower of Babel, and its foundation was a lie — the lie that one of the most backward nations on earth brought down the towers that symbolized the wealth of its most powerful one.
What goes around comes around, and what went around 20 years ago is now coming home to us. But much else has fallen too. It is not, perhaps, too late to rise. The odds are not too good, though, unless we remember the common project — liberty, equality, the common welfare — that, though imperfectly conceived and too seldom fully realized, makes us Americans.