Countless times we’ve been reminded that “the world changed on 9/11.”
In both parties’ National Conventions, we heard it again.
This durable one-liner isn’t just a limp platitude anymore. Nowadays, it’s the alibi when politicians tinker with democracy, and the rationale when citizens lower their standards of what it means to be American and Free.
Tragedy and fear have ushered in a new politics—a blueprint for how to be corrupt without appearing evil. Usually “the change” is mentioned in order to legitimize some aspect of the shady shift that’s now occurring—whether in business, politics, ideology, world policy, military strategy, civil liberties, or the advent of barefaced media propaganda.
Everything changed; thus, we govern in a new way now—for your safety.
With crooked leaders come docile followers who believe it’s patriotic to be scared and vulnerable but not to participate in democracy. In time new catchphrases emerge, and are even more effective.
The Republicans put “Country First.”
The Democrats are all about “Securing America’s Future.”
A population trusts and complies, convinced that things have fundamentally changed and must change again, ASAP.
While surface references to things changing are ample, clarity about what exactly changed (and why it had to) is hard to pin down.
Concretely, many things did change on September 11th, 2001. Jumbo jets disappeared into towers; towers toppled like tiny wooden blocks in a “Jenga” game. Thousands of Americans never came home, and thousands more will never come home the same.
But while airplanes vaporize on impact, empires disintegrate gradually, over time. The lasting casualty of that fateful morning may be the loss of a great nation, one that remains unable to function as it did in its glory. Great nations do not collapse violently, as do great buildings made of steel, but softly, a little more each day, one parcel at time.
Nations die lingering deaths.
If ours crumbles, it will do so in slow-motion, with no loud explosions to mark the moment when at last we finish our fall. This second, slower death will be the enduring legacy of 9/11, the important ending heard not with the bang but only inside the relative whimper that follows.
The changes history shall remember aren’t necessarily about the people who died on 9/11. It may be that our most profound changes have yet to occur.
This newly updated, wounded America is one the victims never knew. It belongs now to the three-hundred-million of us who weren’t murdered that morning–Americans from other regions of the country; New Yorkers who worked in other parts of Manhattan; WTC employees who called in sick or were running late that morning; those who raced out of the buildings moments before they fell.
We are the survivors, and 9/11’s ramifications matter to us.
Yes, our hearts are with the victims. But must our minds fixate solely on the dead as we ask what should come next in life?
“Everything changed” is one version of 9/11, the favored myth in our national monologue and, for some, a therapeutic way to cope with loss. But change is not fait accompli; it is just one possibility among many from which to choose. That is a choice that we as citizens were never given, and one that’s still rightfully ours to make, together.
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