Collectively, we have an expectation that September 11 was a transformative experience. We expect that one of the greatest tragedies of American history would have changed us in some tangible way. We assume that we, as a nation, are different now, a decade after the towers fell, the Pentagon proved itself vulnerable, and the sleeping giant nation awoke to stunning horror.
But how? How have we changed?
There was a YPulse article arguing that 9-11 caused Millenials to be more socially focused. I wish I could say that were true. Unfortunately, I think the article’s argument is just an example of Pollyannaish optimism brought on by a desperate attempt to find meaning from tragedy, while misappropriating a trend that started long before 9-11, one that began with the dawn of the post-materialist age (there’s a great book by Abramson & Inglehart (1995) on this).
I’ve been reading post after post of people recalling where they were when tragedy struck, how they reacted, and the emotions they grappled with since then, in tribute to the memory of those lost on that day and in the days after. But what I see when I read these posts is that they are not the posts you’d expect to see ten years into the healing process from trauma.
What I see when I read these posts is not a nation in the process of healing, but a nation shell-shocked, and shell-shocked, and shell-shocked, over and over again until what meaning we might have found in the tragedy has become lost in the continual bombing of our hearts and minds.
We remember that in the hours and days following the attacks our nation came together in a profound sense of unity: generosity, resolute bravery, and love for our fellow Americans. It was a defiant denial against an unspeakable act of hate. But that was short-lived. Because what fear we had was co-opted and turned into anger and hate. What anger we had, was harnessed and turned into vitriol. 9-11 was no longer just about 9-11. It had turned into war, and more war, and suddenly we learned it was all lies, and still there was more war, on and on and on until our economy and everything else along with it collapsed. Our actions, instead of defying the terrorists, practically ensured all of bin Laden’s stated goals would come to pass – as they did. Meanwhile, any attempt to say, “Wait, this war is being waged for the wrong reasons!” or “Wait, I’m not sure this is right!” became labeled unpatriotic – or worse, traitorous. Dissent, one of the foundational pillars of American democracy, suddenly became synonymous with treason. The media, who once prided themselves on objectivity and the search for truth, suddenly refused to ask the tough questions. The opposition party, whose job is to insist upon debate, fractured, some turning tail to flee, and some becoming more war-hungry than the hawkiest of war hawks.
This is what I remember.
And now, ten years later, Osama bin Laden is dead (another event that leaves us with complicated feelings), but what can we say we have gained from the experience? How has 9-11 shaped us? When we look around we see a nation half-beleaguered, and half-still trying its darnedest to soldier on, to find new ways to rise from the ashes. But our media has lost all sense of objectivity, preferring the pretense of controversy over the quest for truth. Our parties, which only 50 or so years ago, had quite a great deal of ideological overlap, now are so polarized that they can barely function, and getting anything done at all is lauded a success, no matter that what they accomplished is shitty policy.
After the Holocaust, we had the Nuremberg trials. After apartheid, there was the Truth & Reconciliation Commission.
After 9-11 and its attendant wars, what will we have?
We have moved so far apart from each other, politically, that it has become almost impossible to have an open and honest conversation about what happened in the last decade. There is blame to deal with truthfully if we are to heal and to uncover what the true lessons were, and attempt to bring meaning to chaos. There are few who are completely blameless in the actions we have taken as a nation. But still, only a select few truly deserve blame. Nevertheless, to deal with that, we must talk about it and we must listen. We cannot shove it under the rug any longer. We cannot be afraid to deal with difficult truths. We cannot fear controversy. We cannot care who bleeds red, or who bleeds blue. We have to know and trust that ALL OF US bleed red, white, and blue. We must be brave, both to find the courage to speak truth, and to find the courage to forgive.
We sure as hell can’t trust our politicians to start that conversation. We can forget about the media. All we have is…us.
Can we start that conversation?
Change. It begins with me.