The September 11 attacks: how little changed

I had planned to keep out of the whole journalistic splurge over September 11 (even though I’m going to a memorial concert tonight for one of my own relatives), because I didn’t want to foist my political speculations on a Radar crowd, but the outpouring this week of “Everything changed forever!” rhetoric has driven me to write.

What jumps out at me when considering September 11, 2001 is how little the world has changed in response. Developed nations still consume resources as if they’ll go on forever, particularly gobbling up enormous amounts of fossil fuels, the chief source of tension between these nations and the Middle East. The West still throws its weight around in every conventional manner, including the same kinds of military interventions it used to dominate the rest of the world over the past two centuries. (Remember, the incursion that overthrew Saddam Hussein was the “Second Gulf War.”) On the positive side, Europe and the United States remain open, democratic societies, even though European countries have gone tensions over integration and suffered large Islamist terror attacks.

Dual predictions about the consequences of September 11, 2001 were aired right afterword: on the one hand that we would prolong the compassion and doubt about our current social trends and transform them into a new, nuanced understanding of our planet’s and population’s needs, on the other hand that we would suppress all glimmerings of creativity dissent to become a garrison society. What the United States did to keep these risks at bay, I believe, was to make sure that for the majority of our citizens nothing has changed. Remember George W. Bush’s exhortation to go out shopping. That remains the mantra to this day, as the rush to cut taxes demonstrates.

The world has certainly changed in the past ten years, but not in response to the attacks. Analysts do say that investments by the U.S. government in Egyptian democratic groups provided some foundation for the Tahrir Square protests, but much more of a foundation was supplied by long-standing activists such as labor unions. The Arab Spring, the most significant political change of the decade, sprang for the most part from internal ferment. The natural evolution of the computer field, benefitting much less from military investment than in previous decades, created many social changes. Investments in green technologies have been driven not by concerns over terrorism (which is perhaps why they have sputtered out in the United States) but by worries over climate change in Europe and the exhaustion of traditional energy sources in China.

Besides the immediate casualties of the September 11 attacks and those who were close to them, the burden of change has fallen on two groups in the U.S.: residents of Middle Eastern extraction (and anyone unfortunate enough to look like them), and those in the military. By drawing on the National Guard and preserving the military as an all-volunteer force, the government has isolated the latter group and created almost a misunderstood subculture within the United States.

Perhaps we can integrate September 11 into our culture in a more healthy manner by reaching out to these groups. Although few Americans outside the racially distinct group have experienced the force of government surveillance and persecution (the legal groundwork for which preceded the PATRIOT act), we can expect these incursions on civil liberties to expand. Remember that the economic success of Japan in the 1980s led to racist attacks on East Asians. I don’t find the widespread American and European fear of Muslims to be surprising, because our attackers claim they are carrying out these attacks in the name of Islam, and how can people who know nothing else about the religion know any better? But if we do not understand difference now, similar misunderstandings can rend any two groups in society apart at any time.

As for those in the military (another one of my relatives is in the Kandahar province right now), the United States urgently needs to understand what they have suffered to take strenuous efforts to streamline their return to society and the economy. It is scandalous that they do not receive adequate treatment for injuries, and scandalous that they have trouble getting rehired. But this is because most of us deny what they have gone through and what it means for them. The Paris metro (at least the last time I took it) reserves special seats for disabled war veterans, a constant reminder of their suffering in World War II. The United States needs some equivalent reminder for the psychological and physical effects of war.

I read repeatedly that soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq feel disoriented upon their return, strangers to their own country. Is it their reaction to American society that is pathological, or the society to which they are reacting? Even asking the question can move us forward to respond to September 11.