For years after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, people would ask, “Where were you when you heard the news?” For a younger generation, it’s “Where were you on 9/11?”
Most everyone over the age of 30 can tell you. But 20 years later, a more apt question for each of us might be: Where are we as a nation? What has happened to us? Who are we?
On Sept. 11, 2001, I was in my office in Columbia, South Carolina, as I watched the video of the plane hitting the first tower. I knew what it meant and I said it out loud: “Oh, my God, we’re at war.” Something inside me sank to the bottom of my core, and I had a feeling of overwhelming sadness and weariness. It was as though I was seeing all the wars through human history coalesce into a single image.
When the second plane hit, no one else doubted what was happening, either. Our country, like others around the world, was drawn into an unimaginable but all-too-real apocalyptic drama. How could this be happening? All those people. Oh my God.
What we witnessed that day changed us. And I submit that we’re only now beginning to fully grasp the collateral damage of that day. I don’t mean the agony of those who perished, the incalculable loss to their families, or the images forever etched in our collective memory, though all are worthy of continued reverence.
I’m talking about the spiritual and psychological cost to us as a people. These unquantifiable drains on our strength and resilience and confidence have contributed greatly, I think, to a dissolution of our union.
The image and impact of the planes piercing those monuments to American power and wealth deeply penetrated our communal psyche. Everything we believed about our Greatest Nation on Earth turned to ash. We weren’t invulnerable after all. We weren’t beyond the reach of cave-dwelling barbarians, who were as alien to us as the idea that we could be destroyed. This, I believe, was the essential message of 9/11.
The only way I know to put it is that we were knocked way off balance. We lost our center. Our identity and the shared sense of our exceptional, some say divinely inspired, place on the planet came undone, and we’re unraveling still.
Though briefly united by grief and shock, extreme emotion is an unsustainable condition. We were mostly united when President George W. Bush ordered the counterattack in Afghanistan, another anniversary acknowledged with the U.S. withdrawal from that country last month. Osama bin Laden might have entertained the expectation that his attack would destroy more than buildings and lives, but even he couldn’t have foreseen what has happened here in the span of a generation. We are constantly at war—against ourselves.
Division and hyperpartisanship didn’t begin with 9/11. We can trace their beginnings through multiple, historic movements, including the Civil War. A pastel-hued period of genuine unity perhaps never existed, but timing was certainly on bin Laden’s side. By 2001, Democrats and Republicans rarely bothered to sheath their sabers. Every political disagreement was a fight to the death of comity. By the time Donald Trump came along, the country was ripe for pillaging.
It’s fair to say that, with each president after George H.W. Bush, division became an end in itself, a self-righteous vision that culminated in the Jan. 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol. While the fringes terrorize the center with fear tactics and racial division, is it any surprise that we’re divided about whether to accept a lifesaving vaccine?
I sometimes wonder whether societies don’t suffer from an unconscious death wish. Is there an instinct for self-destruction equal to the instinct for progress and survival? I worry about that. But I also know that societies are made up of human beings with free will. We have a choice whether to continue our downward path or change direction and head for the mountaintop.
We are not our brother’s enemy, as most one-on-one conversations reveal. We are more—far more—than our divisions. But our technology-driven balkanization requires extra effort and commitment to change now. The 20th anniversary of 9/11 seems a proper time to abandon our own caves, work to re-center ourselves and aspire to a better answer on the 30th anniversary, when replays of the devastation will again force us to ask: Who are we?