Gil Troy: We Lied. 9-11 Didn't Change Us

Roundup: Historians' Take

Gil Troy, in the Montreal Gazette (Sept. 10, 2004):

Let's face it, most of us lied. Three short years ago, amid the unspeakable carnage of Sept. 11, with the Pentagon aflame, the World Trade Centres towers collapsed, one hijacked plane still smoldering, so many of us said, "Our lives will never be the same." The phrase, which became a mantra for a month - a long time in our throwaway society - was partially a fear, partially a vow.

Those ugly September days, the fear, throughout the West, not just in the United States, was palpable. Many feared a wave of similar attacks. Many feared a world of constricted choices. Many feared the Third World War had begun - and would be as enveloping and incendiary as the previous world wars had been for Europe.

Amid the terror, however, there also was some hope, there were some prayers. Many re-evaluated the Gay 1990s, the times of peace and prosperity, and found them wanting. And many of us vowed to love life more, to hug our loved ones harder, to search for meaning more intensely, to spend more time doing great and selfless things, rather than pursuing small and entertaining diversions.

In the early stages of the public mourning, a proposal to commemorate Sept. 11 as a day for national volunteer service in the U.S. proved popular.

To our good fortune, most of the fears the attacks generated have not been realized. To what should be our great chagrin, most of those idealistic vows have been broken.

The war that has emerged is more subtle, confusing, paradoxical and intermittent, than many anticipated. It is, indeed, a world-wide war, with periodic paroxysms in Russia, Indonesia, Spain, Saudi Arabia and Israel. As people could not fail to notice amid the hundreds killed by bloodthirsty thugs in Russia last week, there is an aberrant, despicable, hate-filled, nihilistic Islamicist ideology uniting and motivating those who bomb a school in Beslan, a nightclub in Bali, trains in Madrid, housing complexes in Riyadh and buses in Jerusalem, Beer Sheba, Haifa and Tel Aviv. But there have been no repeat performances in the U.S., and the spectacularly grotesque terrorist incidents in the West have been one-shot deals; waves of terror have been more common in the Middle East and Central Asia.

The unity and clarity of Sept. 12 have dissipated in bruising battles among allies over Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran. The United Nations has proved flamboyantly irrelevant and quite useless in this war. More disturbingly, the West itself has seemed spectacularly ill-prepared to root out this threat systematically. As Europeans and Americans have faced off in a surprisingly acrimonious fight where hatred of George W. Bush seems to rival distaste for Osama bin Laden in "enlightened" circles, dollars still flow into terrorist coffers and the rogue state of Iran marches toward nuclear capability.

Amid this confusion, most of us have broken our vows - because we could.

The good news is that George W. Bush was right. We could return to our shopping malls and traffic jams and other prosaic concerns. There is a certain power, some courage involved, in refusing to let terrorism define our lives. But in the quest to return to what U.S. President Warren G. Harding called "normalcy," Bush - and his fellow leaders - failed to push their fellow citizens toward the better version of themselves that emerged ever so briefly amid Al-Qa'ida's carnage.

Aside from the small but ever-growing group of victims of terrorism and the soldiers mobilized to fight, the vast majority of us have returned to our Sept. 10 state. We might tut-tut more frequently over the morning headlines; the more sensitive among us might occasionally have nightmares or curtail some travel plans - but most of us have returned to our bubble and reinforced it.

In the United States, whether or not they agree with the administration's decisions and strategy, Americans have allowed a small minority of servicemen and women and their families to carry the ball in the ensuing battles.

In Canada, because Al-Qa'ida has so far failed to target Canadians on Canadian soil directly, most people prefer to dismiss this as America's headache. In Europe, even with almost monthly busts of terrorist cells in Hamburg, London, Paris and Brussels, it has become fashionable to deem this whole mess America's fault.

Politics aside, the overwhelming and unifying fact for the vast majority of Westerners is that the great promise of modern individualistic, capitalist, liberal democracy persists - we continue to be left alone, and continue to prefer to avoid the call of history and dodge broader communal needs, shopping till we drop, dancing the night away, entertaining ourselves silly.

We are "bubble people" because we can be.

That is the great gift of modern Western civilization. It is also the great curse. Let us hope and pray it won't be the cause of our decline and fall amid forces of evil that are more persistent, fanatic and systematic.

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Christopher James Scott - 9/10/2004

"Amid this confusion, most of us have broken our vows - because we could."

I'm not sure that many Americans took a vow to spend less time in Wal-Mart and more in national parks. But even if we did, it seems hollow to judge a person (or a group) by their immediate reactions to serious trauma. That life has achieved a certain level or normalcy is not in and of itself a story, given the momentary nature of a singular terrorist attack.

However, that doesn't mean that something fundamental hasn't changed in the American psyche. I haven't joined the armed forces, law enforcement, or any paramilitary group. I didn't sell my '94 Cavalier for a bicycle or a Prius. I didn't join a religious institution. My political beliefs are pretty much where they were on September 10, 2001. Nevertheless the mental and physical world that I inhabitat is a much less stable one than it was three years ago.

I would like to know about studies of the effects of traumatic events on people. Do such people undergo radical behavioral shifts? What other ways does trauma manifest itself?