It will always be nearly impossible to extract the real meaning and importance of 9/11 from its mythic dimensions because it was -- as it was intended -- a mythic act. The targets were specifically chosen as symbols of American (and Western?) financial and military might, the mainstays of its global ambitions. As a result, this event will surely rival the emblematic sack of Rome by (who else?) barbarians.
While the long-term implications of shifting global power will primarily unfold in other regions of the world, Americans need to explore its importance for their own society. On the symbolic level, this lone major direct hit on continental American soil brought home (literally!) the public's escalating sense of vulnerability and impotence. American society was already reeling from the loss of global economic preeminence, the unraveling of democracy from expanding corporate and elite control, an increasingly rigid and disciplinary social order, and a waning sense of national purpose over the last two generations. This blow from 9/11 summarily reinforced the worst fears of national decline.
As such, 9/11 was quickly swept up in right wing (and centrist) narratives crying out for revenge. This humiliation was utilized to accelerate the expansion of corporate and elite control, a militarized foreign policy, and reactionary social policies to rescue the nation fatally weakened by liberal favoritism to women, racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities, and children. The result was a shift in the American self-image from the purveyor of soft power utilizing benign influence to manage democracy at home and spur democratization abroad. Arising from the ashes was the righteous enforcer exercising hard power -- code for coercive force -- in furtherance of national ideals.
Forgotten of course was the role of hard power since Vietnam and dating from the early days of manifest destiny. Yet the accelerating overreach from global intervention -- whether through soft or hard power -- was certain to trigger significant resistance. Most Americans, misled to believe the goal was democracy and not national power, condemned this response as an insidious attack on liberal ideals. This mainstream tale of a world gratefully embracing American values has been replaced more recently with the hawkish neocon mythology of a nation chosen to realize a global empire.
In the context of such powerful mythmaking and myth-exploiting, what is the underlying meaning of 9/11? Since no one would claim that American "decline" is anything more than relative parity with other emerging (and developed) nations and regions, the issue here is one of psychological impact. The French philosopher Jacques Derrida in an interview-essay called "Auto-Immunity" identified 9/11 as a trauma to the nation's infantile narcissistic fantasy of global hegemony.
Indeed the U.S. has long gloried in its sense of historic importance. The original English Protestant colonists imagined they were creating a holy society that would serve as the model for a redeemed globe. The sense of mission was reinforced by the revolution that proclaimed a new age at hand and in the process created the first modern nation. This mythic identity was insulated during the early republic by isolation from other major national powers, and reinforced in the early twentieth century as the U.S. entered onto the world stage -- nearly miraculously -- in a preeminent position. Americans easily identified their own ascendancy with the triumph of modernity, and assured themselves that the 'American century' represented the end of history.
The experience of 9/11 -- in conjunction with the earlier Columbine violence by high-school students -- represented a head-on collision with alternative narratives of modern history. Their shattering impact -- on their own and as signs of far greater discontent -- announced that the U.S. was neither the culmination of history nor the model of an internally resolved modern society. The deeper message was one that Americans had rarely entertained: that the national self-image contained vast presumptions about itself, some of which (given its leading role in modernization) were justified and many of which were not. The task forced upon Americans by these events was to separate the myth and reality not just of 9/11 but -- far more challenging -- of the larger historical assumptions regarding its national identity.