Before and After: September 11

As the ruins of the World Trade towers smoldered at the southern end of Manhattan and the breeze stirred the ashes of thousands of human beings, a new age of anxiety was born. If someone had slept through Sept. 11 and awakened, Rip van Winkle-like today, he would open his eyes on an astonishing new landscape.

Guardsmen toting M-16s are stationed at our airports. The president of the United States attends a World Series game and the airspace over Yankee Stadium is closed, a line of snipers positioned on the stadium rooftop. The vice-president's safekeepers whisk him from place to place, just as his arch-nemesis Osama bin Laden is presumably moved from cave to cave halfway across the world. Anthrax panic sends Congress running from its chambers.

The events of Sept. 11 divided our world into two radically different eras. We watch wistfully as the pre-9/11 world drifts away on its raft of memory, cast in Technicolor shades of nostalgia. We will remember that assassinated world as idyllic, secure (never mind that it was neither), we will speak of it in the reverent tones reserved for the dead.

Meanwhile, the post 9/11 era looms like an unmapped wilderness. As with other unclaimed territories throughout history, a fierce battle is being waged for its psychic, political and material capital. Former president Bill Clinton has called this conflict "the struggle for the soul of the 21st century," and the spoils of war include some of our most cherished values and liberties. Leading the charge are the warriors of the Bush administration, a battalion of securitycrats and generals who are attempting to colonize the future with their own repressive agenda.

But there is a brighter side, a growing chorus of dissenting voices who reject paranoia and hubris and question the rush toward becoming a security state. There is a dialectic afoot in the country, a stirring of peaceful purpose that has been largely ignored by the mainstream media, which assumes the public is thinking in red, white and blue, when actually the spectrum of emotions, ideas and opinions is, like America itself, multihued.

Just before his death in November 2001, Ken Kesey described the state of the union in succinctly Keseyian terms: "The men in suits are telling us what the men in uniforms are going to do to the men in turbans if they don't turn over the men in hiding." With the prescience of a dying man, Kesey ventured that this was really a war between the brutal, aggressively male way things had always been and "the timorous and fragile way things might begin to be." As many Americans continue to do, Kesey nurtured great hopes for a future constructed on a model of mutual cooperation, trust and rational thinking.

No Longer Invulnerable

The attacks in New York and Washington shattered the sense of invulnerability that was a hallmark of the American psyche. After 9/11, we looked at each other with new eyes, asked new questions. If you found yourself trapped in a doomed airplane with a cell phone in hand, whom would you call? Pundits wrote that the country had lost its innocence, overlooking the fact that innocence is not a desirable quality in a superpower nation.

Overnight, the United States perceived a sword of Damocles suspended over its head and the ensuing waves of paranoia initiated surreal episodes: a nationwide run on gas masks; a demand from the Postal Service that all mail be irradiated against biological threats; and, most appalling of all, Op-Eds that declared using nuclear weapons against Muslim countries would be justified if terrorists killed so much as one more American.

Among the unavoidable truths to emerge from 9/11 is that being on U.S. soil does not render us immune from harm. The American people now have much more in common with millions of the planet's citizens who spend their lives in regions where armed conflict or terrorism take innocent lives daily. We too are mired near the bottom of Maslow's pyramid, struggling to regain our lost sense of safety and security.

The new zeitgeist even has Ally McBeal registering concern about world events. Relationships, laments Ally McBeal, were easier "before the world changed back in September." On NYPD Blue, a detective rebukes another detective that he isn't "the only one affected by what happened at the World Trade Center."

The most visible symptom of our profound psychological trauma is a zealous new patriotism. Seeking solace, the country drapes itself in the American flag like a child in a superhero cape who plays at being invincible. From homes, vehicles and clothing to department store windows, billboards and television commercials, there are few places in the country where the Stars and Stripes has not found a purchase. People who never gave the flag much thought except on the Fourth of July have become suddenly, passionately, patriotic. For some of us, patriotism is a complicated matter, linked with a dedication to the Constitution. But the now inescapable presence of the flag, supposedly a symbol of American pride and unity, sometimes looks suspiciously like overcompensation for a wounded ego. The flag is an icon, a brand that offers no more protection than the Nike swoosh.

A Hardening of Outlook

It has not been fashionable for some time to assign oracular qualities to Orwell's novel, 1984. Yet the book has much to say to our fractured, post-9/11 era. In Orwell's dystopia, "practices which had been long abandoned, in some cases for hundreds of years -- imprisonment without trial ... public executions, torture to extract confessions ... not only became common again, but were tolerated and even defended by people who considered themselves enlightened and progressive." These paroxysmal social changes, Orwell wrote, began with a "general hardening of outlook."

In the U.S. today, this hardening of outlook is called the war against terrorism.

At its forefront, the new defenders of the Homeland are defining its motives, methods and mentality. But many of us define our personal safety and our national character by the very civil liberties that are being compromised in the name of state security. What we are in the process of giving up may prove to be far more precious than what was taken from us on Sept. 11.

In the weeks after the attacks, for example, the Justice Department arrested scores of young Arab and Muslim men and held them without charges, in undisclosed locations. Their names were not released, nor were they permitted to send word to their families. They simply vanished. Georgetown University law professor David Cole calls this "the practice of disappearance," and it is something we associate with repressive regimes, not with participatory democracies. Not only do such activities compromise the nation's integrity at home but they are sure to undermine American credibility abroad. If we cannot adhere to our own ideals and values, to the standards we've called on other nations to adhere to in the past, then we call into question some of our fundamental assumptions about who we are.

Must We Shop 'til We Drop?

An Orthodox rabbi once told me that when you are in control, you prepare for those times when you are out of control. The rabbi was speaking of interpersonal relationships, but his dictum could easily be applied to the current geopolitical situation. To wit: Take an oil-dependent nation that consumes 20 million barrels of oil every day. The nation is in a recession and has just gone to war in the region that supplies most of the oil. Would it not be wise, even patriotic, for said nation to cut back on its oil consumption?

Yet sales of sport utility vehicles, those infamous gas-guzzlers, are up, expected to surpass, for the first time ever, sales of passenger cars. Automakers rejoice in this as a patriotic act. "Business and consumers need to pull together to strengthen our nation's confidence and to keep the economy moving forward," said GM vice president Bill Lovejoy, buoyed by projected sales figures of 3.5 million SUVs.

Just after the attacks, a renewed sense of community was visible across the nation as Americans saw their own grief, fear and concern reflected by friends and neighbors. There was a relaxing of the rampant materialism, along with its ugly stepsisters isolation and compulsion, that has been the undoing of community in this country. Community cannot compete with shopping malls or 200 satellite television channels, with Gameboys or the 70-hour workweek. Community requires people gathering with others and talking, singing, questioning and arguing, a rialto where ideas and creativity are the currency.

Since our economy is dependent upon mass consumerism, however, it wasn't long before government and big business invented the concept of "economic patriotism." This Frankensteinian creation asserts that consumption is an American value, extols the nepenthean powers of the dollar and in effect, discourages national introspection at a time when it would be most valuable. Presidential exhortations to get back to normal assumed we would want to restore the world we had as quickly as possible. But not everyone is content to shut up and shop. The pre-9/11 world cannot be restored, not with a credit card, not with a new car. Many of us want to build on that nascent community. Many citizens concerned about the deteriorating economy are resisting the consumption orgy and are exploring alternatives that would make our country more self-sufficient and prepare us for the tough times that may lie ahead.

History's Lessons

An anonymous rescuer, digging in the rubble of WTC, spoke of his struggle to express to his family what Ground Zero was like. But every time he tried to speak he found himself mute. There exists no suitable analogy for those murdered buildings, for the thousands of lives snuffed out by suicidal terrorists armed with box cutters. Sept. 11 is not like anything but itself.

True, 9/11 is the crisis of our time, our national flashpoint, but it is only one of many such flashpoints in history. This is far from the first time that powerful external forces have impinged upon human beings in a modern society, and it is not the first time those forces have been called evil. Each time it seems the crisis must generate a new paradigm in which such an atrocity will never be allowed to happen again -- and yet it does happen again. In 1941, in a span of two days, 34,000 innocents who also happened to be Jewish were murdered at Babi Yar. Hiroshima: 130,000 dead in a single day. Nagasaki, five days later, another 75,000.

Let's face it, history is a gallery of unspeakable crimes. A mushroom cloud blooming over a seaport city, a human being with her skin burned off, a skeletal corpse embracing a childsize skeletal corpse. A jet slicing through a skyscraper, a skyscraper collapsing upon itself. The nameless man and woman who plummeted, hand in hand, to their deaths from an upper floor of World Trade are caught in the mind's eye of history as eternally as the lovers solidified in ash after the eruption of Pompeii. We tend these images like poisonous flowers in a nightmare garden, we return to them obsessively, hoping to excavate their meaning. What messages do Hiroshima and Babi Yar, or Dresden and Antietam, have for us? What will Sept. 11 tell us?

Perhaps just this: That our suffering is not unique; that we haven't yet got it right; and that the pursuit of peace continues to be the noblest of vocations.

True Courage

"A country is only as strong as the people who make it up and the country turns into what the people want it to become," James Baldwin wrote. "We made the world we're living in and we have to make it over."

How do we move from anxiety to action? From insecurity to confidence, from national paranoia to collective poise? Is our democracy so fragile that four airplane bombs can erode 225 years of liberty? It has never been more clear that we will have true and lasting security only when the rest of the world has true and lasting security. That is the challenge of this particular conflict, the struggle for the soul of the 21st century.

On the beautiful, glass-bright morning of Sept. 11, a man -- an ordinary, unremarkable American -- called his wife on his cell phone. "We're all going to die," Thomas Burnett said as United Flight 93 careened over the Pennsylvania countryside, "but some of us are going to do something about it." All we know of the rest of Tom Burnett's narrative is that his life ended horribly. He and his fellow passengers did not let what must have been abject fear prevent them from acting -- that is the true definition of courage.

What happened aboard Flight 93 was the country's first real victory against terrorism, and it came out of the tradition of democracy. The passengers came up with a plan and they voted on it. Some of the men would rush the hijackers and force the airliner to crash, rather than allow it to be used in another suicide attack on Washington D.C., where it was surely headed.

It's a terrible irony that for a short time, while the condemned jet was aloft, the ideal of American democracy also reached its apex. The rest of us can only strive to do as well. Fortunately, Tom Burnett's last communication to the world was an unintentional gift to us all, a battle cry for the age of anxiety. We are all going to die sooner or later. Let that consciousness not prevent us from acting in each other's best interests, from trying to create a better, safer world.

Tai Moses is managing editor of AlterNet.org.

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