Can September 11 Still Change Everything? Print
Commentary/Politics - Guest Commentaries
Tuesday, 10 September 2002 18:00
It didn’t take long for September 11, 2001, to be dubbed “the day that changed everything.” But change doesn’t happen by itself, and the sad fact is that we – and I’m not excluding myself – haven’t changed nearly enough since the terrorist attacks of one year ago. What happened with four commercial airliners in New York City, Washington, and Pennsylvania was first and foremost a tragedy, but it also afforded us the great opportunity to become more conscientious and more active.

We’re squandering that chance, and every day that passes makes it more difficult to re-capture the national unity necessary to shake our elected officials and national leaders out of their oligarchic mindset. It should be a call to action, but we seem to be missing it. It’s as if the country is still in shock, unable to break out of this reactive patriotism, still paralyzed a year later by the falling of the World Trade Center towers.

The enormity of the attacks and the volume of life lost have rightly made us give great weight to the event. Too much weight, perhaps. One of the most distressing elements of life after September 11 is the tendency to connect virtually everything that happens with the terrorist attacks. What trend hasn’t used September 11 as its dividing line or starting point? What social ill hasn’t been blamed to some degree on the attacks?

This is lazy, inaccurate, and damaging. For one thing, many of the problems that have been blamed on the attacks are at most correlated to the tragedy, not caused by it. You can look at dozens of trends in the context of September 11, and based on that, you might come to the conclusion that everything has changed. It might have, but it’s not necessarily a cause-and-effect relationship.

There’s also a psychological reason why we must not persist in the notion that the terrorist attacks have been the cause of most of our national troubles. If we do, the terrorists have accomplished one of their goals: They have brought the United States to its knees by wounding its economy, its capitalist lifeblood.

In that way, it’s imperative that we look at things in their full context and make every attempt to understand what is (and isn’t) a result of the terrorist attacks.

Technically, for example, the United States had entered a recession before last September 11.

Certainly, those planes didn’t help the economy. People already concerned about their financial well-being got scared. The airline and travel industries have undoubtedly suffered because many people are afraid to fly.

But that’s one sector of the economy, and in itself it cannot explain our current economic situation. It makes more sense to put the situation in perspective: An already weak economy got battered on several fronts within a short period of time – the terrorist attacks, a long-overdue stock market correction that was merely looking for an opportunity to strike, the fallout from the drastic stock-market drop, and corporate scandal after corporate scandal. Given that, of course the economy hasn’t recovered.

So what has changed directly because of the attacks? Our airport security is tighter. We’re more alert to things that seem slightly askew. Many of us carry around an acute sense of grief and loss. (The emotional impact of the attacks is profound and undeniable.)

On the positive side, we generally find life, family, and friends more precious. We’re more respectful and appreciative of police officers and firefighters, and true public servants in general. We have a stronger national identity, and our patriotic feelings, always present but previously more subdued, have bonded us.

Yet a great many things haven’t changed, and for that we should be both grateful and uneasy.

Grateful because generally we’re not a nation frozen by fear. Grateful because we’ve been able to return our attention to the mundane, from petty partisan bickering in our capitols to a barely averted strike in Major League Baseball to that damned American Idol. (There’s no better indicator of recovery than how agitated the trivial makes us.)

Yet we should be worried, too, because the September 11 terrorist attacks haven’t altered our politics for the better. The federal government has used the attacks as an excuse to knock away big chunks of our civil liberties and due process. The Bush administration undertook a war in Afghanistan, and it didn’t achieve one of its primary goals: killing or capturing Osama bin Laden. Now the president is preparing for an attack on Iraq, without giving any explanation why (beyond that Saddam Hussein is a madman who must be stopped) and without support from allies (excepting Great Britain). Our short-sighted and bullying foreign policy continues undeterred, as if the World Trade Center towers were still standing.

And this is all with the blessing of the American people, still giving George W. Bush high approval ratings. The public’s apathy and lack of attention allow the business-as-usual machine to roll on.

It’s as if we’ve learned nothing: The planes plunged into our hearts, but not our heads.

We should ensure that September 11 – and by that I mean not only the attacks but the local and national responses to them – did indeed “change everything.” We should be more conscious of the world and our place in it. We should understand that our foreign policy has long-term consequences, and that we must be careful how we wield our power. We should embrace a healthy skepticism of our government and its leaders, and recognize that it’s possible to question – even object – while still being patriotic.

In short, our consciousness should be stirred as much as (if not more than) our patriotic fervor.

Patriotism should manifest itself in ways more forward-thinking than displaying a flag or building memorials. Our problem is that while we’re eager to be symbolically patriotic – with a flag, a bumper sticker, or a donation – the September 11 attacks haven’t kicked our asses into the realm of active patriotism. We ought to be spending the time and energy to be informed on international policy. We need to vote in greater numbers. We must write letters to members of Congress, to newspapers, to friends, and to the president. We should mobilize our neighbors. We must listen to and consider alternative viewpoints. The list goes on and on.

It would be an affront to the memory of those who died – on September 11 and in the wars we’ve fought in the name of preserving or securing freedom – if we don’t use the anniversary of the terrorist attacks for more than remembrance. It’s the perfect chance to look forward and move forward. It should be an agent of change, not an excuse for all that’s gone wrong.
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