After Anger, Fear, and 9/11

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I am angry all the time . . . and I don't know why. ~ Jean (Sandra Bullock) in Crash (2004)

They flew into lower Manhattan out of a brilliant blue sunlit sky, two jetliners, glinting in the sunlight. It was incongruous—and remains so, in the videos we still sometimes see—how something so beautiful could cause so much damage, become the source of so much terror. Before September 11, 2001, Americans had felt largely immune to the acts of terror that have afflicted other nations around the world. But after the fiery collapse of the Twin Towers and attack on the Pentagon, after the deaths of office workers and first responders, our shock and anger were also accompanied by—and perhaps, prompted by—a deeper, darker emotion: fear.

We live in the world's lone remaining superpower, we told ourselves. We spend more on defense than all other nations—friends and rivals—combined. And yet we had been hurt.

Humbled.

In a world where planes piloted by blade-wielding terrorists could fly into buildings, we Americans asked ourselves, what else is now possible? What is to prevent future attacks? How can we keep ourselves, our families, our nation, safe?

We came to the sad if perhaps long overdue realization that perhaps, for all our military power and economic might, we could not protect ourselves from all harm.

We were afraid.

And we were angry.

In the Oscar-winning movie Crash, Jean (Sandra Bullock), the wife of the Los Angeles District Attorney, stands in for many of us. If anyone should be safe from attack, she should. And yet, when she and her husband are carjacked, she is startled to discover that her wealth and privilege do not protect her from even the most basic assault. When they return home, Daniel, a Hispanic locksmith (Michael Peña), comes to change all the locks, but Jean now sees threat everywhere. She takes one look at Daniel and tells her husband they will need to change the locks again, because "your amigo in there is gonna sell our key to one of his homies." And although Daniel is one of the movie's moral centers, a gentle and generous man, Jean's world has been knocked off its axis; although she is safe, what she sees is danger.

What she sees is the need for better, more secure locks.

In that, she would not be so different from other Americans. After the 9/11 attacks, Americans were told our entire way of life would change. A major new agency, Homeland Security, was created; time-consuming screenings changed our travel habits; danger charts set (permanently, it seemed) on Orange reminded us that the danger of another terrorist attack was always high; at what seemed suspiciously convenient moments, officials would announce intelligence of a possible terrorist attack—or the foiling of one.

Historian Ruth Rosen noted a year after 9/11 how that experience was a shattering of illusions of safety, and how, in the wake of it, we desperately wanted to trust our president and our government to keep us safe from further attacks. This trust, however, was manipulated by the Bush administration for its own ends: "Our leaders have taken advantage of our fear. The Bush administration has planted the seeds of a security state that can, without judicial oversight, congressional opposition, and popular resistance, grow into a repressive government." Rosen quantified the damage in this way:

In the name of preventing terrorism, the Bush administration has employed a politics of fear to create the most extensive national security apparatus in our nation's history.
Military tribunals. Mandatory registration. Mass detentions. Electronic surveillance. Government secrecy. Executive privilege. Office of Total Awareness. Perpetual war.

And all of this in 2002, before we even knew of Abu Ghraib, renditions, spying on Americans, and squads of assassins.

Ten years on, we now know much, if not everything, that was done on our behalf, much that was permitted because of our fear, that felt good because of our anger, and the final recognition is appalling. On Sunday, I told a parish audience at St. Francis Episcopal Church in Macon, Georgia, that the last ten years had been a dismal decade from a spiritual standpoint—from every standpoint.

Not only had we stepped away from many of our most cherished American values—the right to habeus corpus and trial by jury, the presumption of innocence, the refusal to countenance the degradation of human dignity by torture, the respect for sovereign states and international law that forbade preemptive war and the kidnapping of foreign nationals—but we had done so for reasons that were decidedly un-Christian: we acted in these ways because we were afraid of what the future held, because we desperately wished to seem to be in control of our own lives.