Why 9/11 Was No Radical Break With American History
As tragic as September 11 was, could it have triggered a return to the American past?
- 9/11 was no radical point of departure in American history, as is so often claimed. Rather, it is a return to it, a reversion to the historical mean.
- Americans — for themselves and the world as a whole — experienced a happy interlude roughly spanning the post-World War II era until 9/11.
- The rather sparsely spun social safety net in the United States aggravates the country's underlying fears.
It is never easy to write about national tragedies. Symbol-laden as they are, any views expressed about them can be easily misunderstood. That is no different for the events of September 11, 2001. And yet, in the collective memory of nations, it is of critical importance that such events are categorized the right way, lest they give rise to an ideological, potentially self-glorifying or otherwise incorrect view of the tragic happenings.
Unfortunately, the way in which 9/11 has been perceived in the broader U.S. debate is based on an incorrect, slightly self-pitying viewpoint. The attacks on the World Trade Center towers in New York City and on the Pentagon right outside Washington, it is often said, represent a radical break with American history.
In a literal sense, that is certainly true. Aside from the attack on Pearl Harbor, not since shortly after the founding of the republic had there been as massive an attack on the American homeland. And never before had contemporary, civilian technology been used to such a devastating effect against so many people in one event.
For a nation that has always prided itself on being an island nation — and therefore, thankfully, somewhat removed from the entangling hubbub of nations and peoples packed on cramped continents — that was a hard pill to swallow.
To see that physical distance, and assumed safety, violated so violently, and with airplanes — a technology that has been part and parcel of America’s technological and industrial rise — was a big shock.
But what, with the benefit of hindsight, was new about the events of September 2001 didn’t have so much to do with the end of inviolability of the U.S. territory. Although in a much less pervasive sense, illegal immigration had been both a precursor of, and a successor to, the 9/11-related sense of violation of the nation’s territorial integrity. (This connection, coincidentally, also explains the virulence of the anti-immigration spirit in some quarters in the United States.)
When assessing an event as significant as 9/11, it matters perhaps most to think honestly, and deeply, about its meaning as well as its long-term effect. That is critical to ensure that the potential trauma does not fester in unexpected, and potentially very unhelpful, ways.
Viewed in that light, it becomes apparent that 9/11 was no radical point of departure in American history, as is so often claimed. Rather, it is a return to it, a reversion to the historical mean.
From that perspective, Americans experienced a happy interlude spanning the post-World War II era until the 9/11 attacks.
While the country had to contend with the threat posed by the Soviet Union during most of that period, it was a time when the United States was perceived by itself and the rest of the world as a confident, self-assured power. It established itself successfully as a country that has, by and large, always been quite generous in sharing its wealth, perspectives and experiences with other nations.
That relaxed self-perception and way of acting, domestically and internationally, is rooted in the material superiority and level of technological sophistication of the United States. As a result, the country — a global symbol of admiration and/or envy, even by its most ardent opponents in the world at large — felt, and acted, in a remarkably relaxed and non-fear-driven manner.
That, it is important to note, represented quite a departure from the American past, especially on the domestic front, where life had indeed traditionally been quite fear-driven. The task of continental conquest, of settlers and the frontier, of the entire unrootedness of one’s existence, attested to that.
The lack of a social safety net, in contrast to the practices of other rich nations, made this existential threat a very personal one. It had a direct effect on the outlook of individuals, families and communities alike.
At times, that underlying fear factor manifested itself in other areas, such as when it found a rather vivid expression in the sphere of foreign policy. Just consider the case of the repeatedly irrational fear of Soviet might — and the McCarthyite wave of the 1950s.
But it was 9/11 that brought a sudden, shocking and full-blown return to the fear factor in American daily life. The first, very public sign, bewildering at least to foreign observers, came with the launch of the now-infamous five-tiered, color-coded terror warning system. That system was abandoned only in January 2011.
The reason why this event gelled and resonated so much in the public mind had a great deal to do with the economic news of the 2000s and certainly of the decade we have just entered. Economic strife has greatly heightened the sense of fear in people’s everyday existence.
The rather sparsely spun social safety net in the United States aggravates those underlying fears. While this connection is not usually made, a thin social safety net may have advantages for corporate cost structures and the government’s budget, but it definitely does increase the wear and tear on the people themselves in their daily existence.
As a result of all these considerations, it is emerging that a fundamental reassessment is warranted. While many outside the United States grew up with the notion of a self-confident America that stood tall above the shoulders of Asians and Europeans, American society is revealing itself as more fear-driven than it was in that roughly 55-year interlude lasting from 1946 (or thereabouts) to 2001.
Thus, 2001 represented a return to the fear-driven American past, not a radical departure.