Why 9/11 Doesn’t Matter
The newspapers are filled with images and recollections from the September 11,2001 terrorist attacks, but no one seems to care. The online news sources are warning of a new terrorist threat on the 10th anniversary this weekend, but no one seems terribly scared. Americans, even in New York, appear preoccupied with other problems. Americans are also tired of terrorist warnings and remembrances. College students who barely remember the September 11, 2001 attacks, do not view them as transformative in any way.
Even a few months ago, I had predicted much more public introspection and mourning on this solemn 10-year anniversary. Why is this not the case? Why is the public so apathetic about such a significant milestone?
The best answer is that the attacks were traumatic, horrifying, and enormously destructive, but they did not change very much. New York City continued to grow and thrive as a center of world capitalism. Washington D.C. remained the capital for the only truly global superpower, despite the economic difficulties of the last three years. Although the United States embarked on new wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other regions, most citizens (especially affluent professionals and college students) did not feel any pain. The lives of most Americans continued pretty much as they had before September 11, 2001. This was not a Pearl Harbor or Fort Sumter moment.
Some might view this analysis as evidence of American resilience. That is true. Terrorists can cause a lot of damage, but they really cannot challenge American power. Terrorism is a tactic with little long-term strategic value.
The frustrating element of American resilience is our society’s stubborn stagnation. We have changed very little since September 11, 2001, but maybe we really needed to change. Americans have continued to under-invest in infrastructure and education, as both crumble. Americans have burned ever-more fossil fuels, as our environment becomes disastrously degraded and erratic. Americans have continued to live beyond our means, as the piles of debt close off new economic opportunities.
The attacks of September 11, 2001 and their ten-year memory could inspire citizens to think in fresh ways about the long-term problems in our world, and the possibilities for new solutions. Courageous leaders would encourage these reflections as Abraham Lincoln did during the Civil War, Franklin Roosevelt did during the Depression and World War II, and Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy did during the Cold War. It is not the tragic events that re-shape a society, but the willingness of leaders to turn those events into productive experiences of self-sacrifice for larger purposes. For a decade we have lacked leaders of that caliber.
The last 10 years were a wasted decade. Americans refused to re-examine their behavior, they refused to investigate new possibilities, and they avoided collective sacrifice at all costs. Historians will look back on this period and condemn the pig-headedness of a people who were viciously attacked, and then stuck their heads in the sand. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were cover for a deeper denial that real behavioral change was necessary.
After a decade of such pathetic stagnation, why should anyone care about the 10th anniversary of September 11, 2001? Our best hope is that the necessary changes of the next decade merit more reflection and celebration when we reach the 20th anniversary.
The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of either Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.