Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten Years Later: Thoughts From a Post-9/11 World

More than anything -- wow -- it's hard to believe that 2001 was already ten years ago.

As I looked through my blog archives the other day, I re-read what I had written on the fifth anniversary of September 11th, 2001 - in 2006. At that point, there was a real sense that there was little to commemorate and little sense of closure to be had, as we were still very much living in the aftermath of the events of that day. We were all still waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Five years later, ten years since 9/11/01, I think in many ways it has. Osama Bin Laden has been killed. Revolutions have occured in the middle east without any direct US military intervention. While the threat of terror attacks still looms large, any number of other issues and potential crises - economic collapse, natural disasters and climate change, cultural upheaval - have to some extent eclipsed that threat in terms of immediacy and urgency.

And yet ... there will never be true closure, because America and many other parts of the world fundamentally lost their innocence ten years ago. As some morbidly fascinated part of me re-watched the news coverage from 9/11 on MSNBC this weekend, I was struck by how the newscasters were simultaneously grasping to frame what had happened in old-world terms, while also quickly coming to realize that this was a very new sort of threat. Tom Brokaw called the attacks a declaration of war. And so many in government - and so many of us - couldn't help but think of what had happened in those terms. In fact, the desire for a good, old-fashioned war was so strong that we somehow ended up in Iraq, under the false pretenses that Saddam Hussein and his regime were instrumental in the 9/11 attacks. But even in the news broadcasts from that day, it was clear that this would not be a war like others before it. There was no specific enemy. We weren't fighting another nation. We were fighting an ideal, a sickness, an evil that had been spreading in various parts of the world for a long, long time. And like any virus, you'll never truly wipe it out. Ridding the world of Bin Laden was a moral victory, but when he was killed, no treaties were signed, no land was redistributed, no truce was agreed upon.

Similarly, as much as we'd like to paint things in black and white, I think 9/11 woke many of us up and showed us that the world is a much more complicated place than we'd been taught. When you learn history as a kid, when you study the great wars, it's all spoken of in generalities. Germany, Japan - the Axis Powers. This country vs. that country. And too often, people still think in that way. But more than ever, there is no umbrella that allows you to just lump all people in a country or region together. The terrorists behind 9/11 had no particular loyalty to any one country or nationality. Sure, the Taliban government harbored them, but ultimately, there are any number of countries in the region that could have been their base of operations. Meanwhile, the recent uprisings in Egypt, Libya, etc. have shown us that there is often a great divide between the ruling regimes of a country and its people. In Iraq, Americans quickly became privy to the fact that this was a country that was completely factionalized. The world is a much more complex place than it was fifty or sixty years ago.

Sometimes, you can't help but feel the same way about America. There was undoubtedly a feeling of unity and solidarity in 2001, but that quickly faded into divisiveness. Five years ago, a lot of my reflections on 9/11 were colored by my discontent with the Bush administration and its policies - by the way in which they so quickly squandered the goodwill towards America post-9/11, by the way they fostered an atmosphere of fear and paranoia and began taking liberties with the truth in the name of politics. I couldn't have quite anticipated then the feeling of hope and new beginnings that would come soon after with the historic election of Barack Obama to the presidency. Finally, in many ways, America could move on.

There have been many moral victories and policy victories since Obama's election, but there's also been a greater ideological divide in our government than ever before. I don't want to make this a political post, but the point I'm getting at is that it's easy to feel, here in 2011, like there is not one distinct America anymore. Not that there ever was ... not for any long period of time, anyway. But for a moment, it did feel that way ten years ago. And when I talk to friends and go online and take stock of the collective voices I hear from my peers, I do feel like, hey, we are all sort of in this together. We've all got basically the same hopes, dreams, and fears. We're all reflective - I mean, our generation is nothing if not nostalgic - and so we're all looking back on where we were ten years ago, and how we heard about the attacks, and remembering those who died or were hurt on that day. And to me, that's a good thing. Because our generation likes to be emotive, and chatter, and spread thoughts and memories over the interwebs to the extent that we have a pretty damn strong collective cultural memory. That's a good thing because it means that no, we won't forget, and yes, we'll know what to do to avoid the same old mistakes of the past.

It's amazing to think about the communications revolution of the last ten years and what that means for a post-9/11 world. It's good and bad. If you're plugged in, it's hard to live in a bubble. It's hard to be exposed to only one ideology or mode of thought. People who rose up in countries like Libya were very much aware, I think, that there was something better than the lives they were living. They knew that the rest of the world was watching them. They knew that their cause was part of something larger going on elsewhere - a movement - that couldn't be stopped. Of course, the flipside is: if you're a crazy person, a conspiracy theorist, a fanatic -- well, now it's easier than ever to find others who share your views and who help to validate your fringe beliefs. Truth - science, logic, fact - can get lost in a neverending stream of information and misinformation. Just look at our own country for proof of this - we have a major political party that now includes among its core beliefs the notions that evolution didn't happen and that climate change is a myth. That to me is what's scary. Because is it really that far of a leap to go from major political candidates who thinks that god talks to them and informs their political actions, to suicide bombers who think that they are acting in the name of allah? I know, there's still a large gap between the two. But one thing that has profoundly affected me in the last ten years is a deep, deep skepticism of religious fundamentalism in all of its forms. I place a high value on spirituality, on community, on morality and ethics. But we've seen religion warped too much in the last ten years, too often invoked in the name of horrible atrocities, to not be skeptical - and perhaps even afraid - of those who believe that their specific views, their specific actions, are somehow divinely justified.

On one hand, part of me wants to say that the attacks of 9/11 were futile. Indeed - they succeeded in needlessly taking lives, needlessly ruining the lives of those who survived and were affected. They succeeded in creating tragedy and misery and ruin. But then what? They didn't ultimately stop us from living in freedom and relative peace. They didn't fundamentally change the balance of power in the world. We're still here in America living our lives. For Al Queda - did the attacks do *anything* to improve *their* lives? Was there any sort of tangible victory for them, other than whatever sadistic pleasure they took in mass murder? That's what's so backwards about the whole thing - they were a group in theory driven by religious fanaticism and ideology, but their attack was more about simply causing anarchy and terror than any sort of tangible gain. For them, it accomplished exactly nothing. On the other hand, I'm also weary of downplaying what happened on 9/11. The attacks could have been even worse - if not for the heroic passengers of United 93, for example. And as much as the War in Iraq was initiated under false pretenses, that doesn't mean that there was no threat of a weapon of mass destruction getting into terrorist hands. And that threat still looms. There are enough crazy people in the world and enough loose nukes that, as much as we like to think we're safe, there is always that fear of catastrophic tragedy. Since 9/11, we always react to the latest potential threat with a very direct response. We take off our shoes at the airport, we pack our liquids and gels. But 9/11 was a wake-up call that terrorism can surprise us, and as much as we prepare, you just never know what could happen.

It's been ten years since September 11th, 2001, and man, it's flown by. I was 18 then, now I'm 28. Since then I studied in London, lived in New York, moved to Los Angeles, and had my feet firmly planted in the dreaded "real world." Sometimes, I worry that our generation is so obsessed with pop-culture and other trivialities (and who am I to talk, I moved to LA to work in the entertainment industry) that we don't have enough drive to change the world and take the reigns from previous generations. But then, I realize that in some ways, pop-culture obsession can simply be thought of as cultural obsession. We're hungry for ideas, for creativity, for something - anything - beyond the mundane. We know the darkness that is out there, but we also know the possibilities. We know that music, art, ideas, discussion, cultural exchange - these are the things that will bring about revolution. But we also know that ideological rigidness and fanaticism will accomplish nothing - pragmatism is the name of the game, and we know that if the rank-and-file fanatics of the world were to use their heads and really say "what do we want, and how can we accomplish it?" - well, we know that terrorism and mass-murder is not the answer they'd logically arrive at.

That's the method of thinking that I want to see more of. Every day, all of us in our own way is a problem-solver. But too often, those in power, or those looking to shake things up, are only problem-causers. The attacks of 9/11? Solved nothing, benefitted no one. That's the extreme example, the ultimate Exhibit A on the futility and pointlessness of terror attacks in the big picture. On a smaller scale, you look at so many of the ongoing problems that are out there. The Israel-Palestine conflict, the deadlock in our own Congress, and you want to shake the idealogues by their collars and say "Do you want to argue for years, for decades? Is this about power or is this about solutions?"

And that's what I'd like to think that 9/11 was, in retrospect - the last great gasp of the old way of thinking. One final lashing out by the vile, venal, and insane among us, desperately trying to interrupt the flow of progress, peace, and change.

But today, even as we try to be hopeful and look ahead, we can't help but look back - even if just for a moment - and remember what happened and those who died.

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