Right after the horrendous tragedy of 9/11, I co-authored an op-ed about the effects of the attacks on the American psyche: shaken confidence, an all-too-keen awareness of lives ended and innocence lost. Much of that still holds true.
But with another decade between us and those terrible events, it's becoming clearer that some very positive changes came about as a result of that horrific act of violence and time of immense sadness. A new breed of modern American heroes emerged, in the immediate aftermath of the attacks and in the wars that ensued, as well as in small-scale everyday life. The Me Generation gave way to the ordinary men and women who decided to step up and give a damn about their neighbor, to put giving back right up there with getting ahead.
And while 9/11 gave lie to the Myth of American Invincibility, a little humility has turned out to serve us well. The fall of the Twin Towers might have been a dethroning of the beauty queen, but Miss America has emerged a much nicer person -- Miss Congeniality, perhaps -- far more interested in community service and micro-philanthropy than any other population in the world.
The tragedy and its aftermath have special resonance for me, and not just because my job as a marketer and trendspotter keeps me keenly interested in national minds and moods. Fifteen years ago I co-authored a book, published first in The Netherlands, that included what was then a small prediction, even an afterthought, despite its seriousness. I predicted that terrorism would occur on American soil -- I was thinking Disney World -- and while promoting the book talked about my own personal fear of al Qaeda, perhaps because living in Holland made me more aware of news about the organization's cells in Nairobi. Because I "predicted" terrorism in the U.S. five years before Osama bin Laden became a household name, I find myself always more obliged to feel and do more -- to give back -- around what ultimately happened on 9/11.
After Sept. 11, 2001, I quickly realized that life would never be the same. American confidence and vitality (and the sense that recovery was our birthright) had been rocked to the core. I saw the angst in the studies I oversaw at Euro RSCG Worldwide and right outside my own door. I was living on the Lower East Side at the time and stayed in my apartment during those initial dark days, when you needed ID to enter your neighborhood and when everything was put on indefinite hold (except the unflagging Chinese restaurants sliding menus under doors, as if 3,000 people weren't missing only a mile away). This was the ultimate urban ghost town.
Perhaps predictably, the initial shock subsided with time. But other reminders emerged. In 2003, my golden retriever Morgan developed some bizarre symptoms, which my Tribeca vet called 9/11 disease. Three years later, she was dead of a nonspecific cancer. And a year after that, I was diagnosed with an atypical brain tumor; I can't prove that it was connected and have never bothered trying, but 9/11 took away the luxury of believing that anything was just bad luck.
At any rate, I was incredibly fortunate. That's why I embraced the invitation to help Bob and Lee Woodruff launch their charity to help wounded warriors and their families cope with brain injuries and post-traumatic stress. In early 2006, journalist Bob Woodruff was seriously injured by an improvised explosive device near Baghdad and struggled with expressive aphasia for more than a year after his injury. His plight made clear that it's not about the war but about the warriors: Whatever your position on American military involvement in the Middle East, 9/11 encouraged us to stand together and support anyone who was making a sacrifice for America. It also put the spotlight on brain health: Maybe today's kids won't play football like they played it in the past.
Eleven years ago, I wrote about the striking emptiness where the Twin Towers once stood and called it "a void that we feel in the pits of our stomachs. A wrenching reminder not just of the human lives so violently taken and of the shattered lives of those left behind, but of what we as a nation have lost."
But now I also see what we as a nation have gained. We've become more community-minded. We've stepped up to the plate. We've acknowledged that not everyone likes us and we've accepted that maybe they have reasons not to. In interpersonal connections and in international business negotiations, we as Americans are moving on flatter terrain; we're now an influential part of the pack but not necessarily the leader.
In the end, what might be the greatest change is a new understanding that our national security is only as strong as Americans' sense of personal security -- and also that personal security isn't the only factor. I said it 11 years ago and I'm proud to reiterate it now: Freedom cannot be allowed to bow to fear.