Some of you who are reading this have no idea what America was like before 9/11. This post is a reflection on how I think America has changed since then.
I’ve heard people say that they think 9/11 brought us closer as Americans. They point to the way we responded to the crisis when the towers came down: all those who willingly risked (and sometimes lost) their lives in order to bring others to safety. I’ve heard about the bravery and courage of so many on that day, it’s hard to not be stirred by their stories.
But the way we respond to something bad in our lives doesn’t just mean how we respond at the moment the bad thing happens. It also means how we respond afterward, when the sky has cleared and the dead have been buried (those who could be found, that is). I’m proud of the Americans who reached out to help after 9/11. But I’m not proud of what we have become since then.
Before 9/11 we thought we were invincible. We thought nothing could touch us. I understand that 9/11 changed that belief and made us paranoid about it happening again. I’m not saying that those fears are unfounded. But instead of making us more empathetic about all the world’s people who experience similar (or worse) tragedies, we adopted a “Poor me!” attitude. 9/11 was horrible and shocking, but it pales in comparison to things that happen daily in other parts of the globe (or even our own nation).
It’s normal when you’re anxious to try to find a target for your fears. If you can identify the enemy, it gives you something to focus on. We were anxious after 9/11 and we needed to know how to protect ourselves from it happening again. I understand that. But I don’t think that excuses the distrust and hatred of not just Muslims, but of anyone who is “different.” Do you think it’s an accident that people are more emotional about immigration than they used to be? We think we’ll be safe if we keep all foreigners out of America (except for, of course, the acceptable ones).
Ten years ago, conservatives were critical of liberals, but they weren’t as outspoken as they are today. And they were more civil, even during political campaigns. Now conservative talk-show hosts say the most outrageous and hateful things they can think of, and no one blinks an eye. (That’s not entirely true: there are plenty of people who don’t like it, but we don’t have the voice conservatives do.) And it’s not just the pundits like Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck and Laura Ingraham, it’s also the politicians. Judging by the last presidential campaign, I shudder just thinking about how uncivil the conversation will be this time around.
I’m also appalled at how willing people are to give up their individual freedoms. Homeland Security is our country’s “secret police force.” They have powers we don’t even know about. We have no idea to what extent they can snoop around in our lives and it’s all legal. We can be detained without reason or with no representation. All it takes is the suspicion that we might have something to do with terrorism.
And to make matters worse, we’re just supposed to sit and take it. Protesting is compared to committing treason. Right after 9/11, even comedians toned down their political satire; they were that afraid of being branded as unpatriotic. I remember a hush over the country, as if everyone was tip-toeing around the elephant in the room: the reactionary policies of a paranoid President and government.
Has America learned anything in the past ten years about courage? Courage to stand up for our convictions, to speak our minds, to fight for what we believe is right? Have we learned anything about charity, about helping others, even at great cost to ourselves? And most of all, have we learned anything about tolerance? Are we more aware that we are all interconnected? Has the world become smaller for us, or is America still the center of our universe?
When the towers came down on 9/11/01, it was like a nuclear bomb went off. And ten years later, we’re still dealing with the fall-out.
[Cross-posted on my other blog, Femagination.]