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A Cultural Reverie on the New 9-11 Memorial Museum

05/13/2014 03:40 pm ET | Updated Jul 13, 2014

9-11 doesn't need a year date, 2001. 9-11 is one of those dates -- at least in the American mind -- that lives in a category named "inconceivable." It's a date when the twin towers of American mythology -- invincibility and transparency -- came crashing down.

We are now more than a dozen years in front of that day, but 9-11 is still with us: perhaps a bit submerged in our consciousness, but no less potent than it was on that beautiful NYC morning. The lower Manhattan site has been cleaned up and a new mega-skyscraper has risen from the rubble. Not yet so for the American psyche.

Circumstantially, the suddenness and immensity of the tragedy still challenges our narrative quest for explanation and reasonableness. Constitutionally, by dint of the richness of the American natural resource base and our pole-vault via the industrial revolution from infancy to adulthood, Americans have never had to know 'the other' or themselves. They thought they could just move forward, dealing with the surface of things, pragmatically, and get on with "it." That was a misreading of our own capacities and the nature of mind.

Before the new 9-11 museum opens on May 21, perhaps attention should be paid to America's inner self, so that it doesn't become a relic of past times encased in a dream-state.

I am a cognitive anthropologist. I study the mind and mood of various publics and analyze how people form beliefs and create attachments to ideas, people and things.

America, Pre- and Post-9/11

Soon after 9-11 I crisscrossed America speaking to people about how each was impacted by those duo-plane fireballs and what the commonalities were in how each person thought about their world and the world, before and after that horrific day.

Pre-9/11, the majority of Americans thought the future was assured, they were relatively optimistic ("Everything is Okay or will be Okay"). For the most part, the middle class was satisfied and secure; and was largely materialistic: appearance was reality. Theirs was a state of straightforwardness and high-expectation.

Post-9/11, the American cultural narrative abruptly shifted to a story of "the party is over" and "yes, the good times do have limits." People felt vulnerable. They talked of "'anything goes' is no more." Americans were sobering up to the fact that there is more than the surface to things, and that "big isn't everything" (quantity does not necessarily equal quality, in throw-weight or consumer goods).

One immediate reaction to the tumbling of the Twin Towers was the shrinking of territorial range. People stayed closer to home, partly out of fear and, relatedly, partly out of just wanting the comfort of the known. Americans were taking solace in the womb of filial warmth. America downshifted from offense to defense. Two very common refrains I heard while I was on the road that winter were, "It's hard to say what's normal now because, What's Normal!" and "Who knows what's next, if people are capable of that!" The primal smell of unpredictability was in the air. Americans, never cynical, for the first time started thinking, well, maybe evil does exist. This was big-time stuff for America because Americans, by birthright, are forever in pursuit of something they believe they can have: Happiness.

What Now?

Many of those involved in the September 11 attacks have gotten their due. But for those around the world who passively acquiesce to terrorist acts -- and for all of us -- caught in the trap of anger stemming from a feeling that the world has passed us by, we must recognize we can't go back to the old days and ways. That's simply because the context that gave rise to that state of being is asunder. Forever.

One of America's great novelists, Don DeLillo, wrote a book about the post-911 world. The book was titled, Falling Man. If we are all going to stop from falling, it might be helpful to remember another man of words, the poet James Geary. He said, "A poem is an instance of attention." That's what everyone needs to do. Pay attention to what lies under the hooded stereotypes and too-easy clichés of the superficial talk we are so inundated with today. As one person I spoke with put it, "Now I want to ask better questions and focus more on understanding me by better understanding the world. I want to look at what's really going on."

America, big and powerful, but in a bygone era, made some poor assumptions: These included:
• The world is a mirror image of yesterday.
• The world is a mirror image of "me."
• Tomorrow is a linear extrapolation of today.
• The world operates by rational logic.
• The world can be totally comprehended, objectively, and everything is on the surface.

Now is the time for we Americans to stop mirror-imaging and hold a mirror up to ourselves.

May 21, the day the 9-11 Memorial Museum opens, is a day we will again honor those who were turned into blood-ash on that sunny September morning. But we should honor them, too, by not falling like Dylan's rolling stone.

We might dress so fine and go to the finest schools, but are we bound to fall? 9-11's supreme irony might be it started America on a way back, to be on its own and to knowing how it feels to know itself and know 'the other.' That would really be America, the Beautiful.