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Beyond the Myth of 9/11: The Path of Self-Examination

09/09/2011 12:00 pm ET | Updated Nov 08, 2011
  • James Block Political Theory and American Culture professor, DePaul University

September 11 was not only a trauma but, as with any crisis of identity, an opportunity for greater maturity. This would require serious reappraisal of the national project, beginning with the lure of self-mythology itself. Such castle-building enables those threatened with unmanageable external danger to split the world into us and them, superheroes and villains, good and bad forces, groups, and individuals. It replaces real complexities with the simple fantasy of moral triumph.

Splitting has been a prominent feature of the "new world's" mission since it was an isolated colony to redeem the world from "old world" oppression. Anointing oneself as the 'Bastion of Freedom' against the 'Axis of Evil' is simply the most recent example. This idealized self-image reinforces the national sense of moral invulnerability as it reshapes the globe into a neoliberal market under American guidance. The response to escalating opposition from friend and foe who question this narrative, "Message Received -- and Rejected," displays a bravado obscuring the loss of touch with reality.

The uncomfortable truth is that pretentions of invulnerability and pervasive fear are two sides of the same coin. The intense need to defend what is indefensible generates constant anxiety that these illusions will be punctured, requiring a protective shell to keep the fears at a distance, out of sight. The question, then, is the source of this need for invulnerability. Why is the nation's identity so threatened? What are we so afraid of finding out about ourselves?

This dynamic of fear and invulnerability has deep roots in the American experience. They jointly arose as the colonies and early republic created the first modern society, releasing individuals from the pervasive traditional constraints on opportunity, social mobility, and initiative. In so doing, the U.S. challenged itself to produce a citizenry capable of managing their lives and options in a less regulated market economy, popular political system, open religious sector, and self-chosen communities and families.

That process was never fully effective. It was hampered by its scale and ambition, a vast and diverse population, a neglected underclass, and the flow of immigrants from traditional societies. As a result, the nurturing of empowered and self-governing individuals reached only a percentage of the population. Yet American society insisted on the independent capacities of its citizens, opening up the need for shortcuts -- fear and claims of invulnerability -- to mobilize the appearance of an effective liberal society.

This unsupportable claim to be the ideal modern democracy led to a continual gap between rhetoric and reality. As Americans parroted the values of freedom and individuality while succumbing to majority expectations and elite direction, foreign observers and native critics questioned national pretensions. The increasing popular submission in our time to mindless patriotism, cliché-ridden sloganeering, and media manipulation only reinforces doubts about the free society. Claims of invulnerability -- punctured by 9/11 and Columbine -- now scarcely mask the growing sense that the nation can no longer sustain a popular representative system, that neither its institutions nor its citizens will resist the gradual lapse into authoritarianism.

Fear played an even more central role in sustaining the illusion of an individualistic society. From the very beginning of Anglo-American liberalism, those freed from traditional constraints had to be induced to submit to republican social order. Now aware of their right to desist, they had to be impressed with the grave danger of anarchy haunting a society of individuals. To be a good citizen, their rebellious and deviant wishes had to be subdued in favor of socially adaptive behavior and group social judgments. This self-discipline, really self-repression, was reinforced by the threat of social rejection and isolation beginning in childhood. The result by the middle of the twentieth society was a timid conformist society driven by the internalized wish to comply.

Americans have always hesitated to examine the mobilization of fear underlying liberal social order, preferring to believe in their mythic powers of self-determination. The public answer to Columbine has been an all-out campaign to overdiagnose and overmedicate the younger generations into a quietism and passive conformity inconsistent with democratic renewal. On the international level, the response is an unbridled release of populist fervor largely frustrated at home, justified as the national right to act in its (however aggrandizing) self-interest. Yet a society "marked by fear" of "barbarians" in the words of Tzvetan Todorov entertains the risk of "turning us into barbarians" by mobilizing a "desire for vengeance" that will "destroy the West from within."

The alternative is a more realistic national narrative. What 9/11 announced was a growing dynamic of global equivalence, with those long exploited now demanding a voice in the world system. Privileged nations will have to make space and constrain their own runaway sense of entitlement. Columbine in turn made clear that the increasingly repressive society in the U.S., reaching from disciplinary childhood and schooling to a neo-feudal economic system, will suffer periodic disruptions unless the root causes and structures are addressed.

Such weighty matters cannot be solved without serious and sustained rethinking about national priorities. The only certainty is that the present path is untenable, the reliance on wishful ascendancy and a cowed populace flattered by populist rhetoric signs of eroding national institutions. There are enormous resources of vision throughout American history and in the actions and ideals of many today to address the role of fear and insecurity at home, claims of ascendancy abroad. These remain for another occasion: the first demand arising from this anniversary is to face up to the challenge of self-examination.