We were naked and terrified.
Mass murder and devastation began their awful pedagogy, teaching mighty and sometimes contradictory lessons about an America that needed to save itself. Ravaged America, trapped in its "serial innocence" (Anne Taylor Fleming's wonderful phrase), found out viscerally that we had murderous enemies, and went to extremes. Ordinary human bereavement, and love for our stricken people, combusted into a panic. Too soon, imagination failed, and we hustled past what might have been a thoughtful pause. We might, for example, have contemplated the fates of others who had been devastated not so long ago, like those in Chile, which, on its own September 11—1973—saw the dictator Pinochet, with American connivance, turn the country into a prison camp.
Licking our own wounds was only human. Striking back at Al Qaeda and its protector, the Taliban, was practical, not grandiose. But we rocketed from pain, vulnerability, and injured pride to bravado, from zero hour to swollen faith, as if it were now unpatriotic to fuss about who had committed mass murder and who had not. Those who had slaughtered with a perverse faith in their own hatred would be crushed by our grander, more righteous faith! So a legitimate, imperative call to self-defense was distorted into an ignorant, messianic war. Apparently, America had to become all or it would be pulverized down to nothing. There was a genuine monster in Iraq, so we would not have to look closely when we went abroad in search of monsters to destroy.
Instead of using a full palette of national values, Americans contrived a black-and-white identity out of defeat and loss. Vulnerability drove America mad. Overwhelmed by a Manichaean version of patriotic fervor, lacking a firm foothold in the political class, discouraged by media either toothless or yahoo, too many liberals settled for marginality. It would have been hard, even under the best of circumstances, to reaffirm liberal values. But liberals made the task harder by trying to make virtues of helplessness and bitterness.
After years of bloody frustration, we came back to a suppler, more intellectually serious conception of what loyalty entails under democratic conditions: debate, not obedience. But for all that we have rebounded from our maximum recklessness, thoughtful patriotism remains controversial, and not a week goes by without some new report of perverse notions of loyalty, from the panic against the "Ground Zero Mosque" to the mistreatment of Private Bradley Manning to the "counterterrorist" surveillance of peaceful protesters.
If America has, in the past decade, avoided the most authoritarian seizures of past wartimes, we dare not get smug about our democratic and liberal achievements. Indeed, there persists a large American bloc that believes, or seems to believe—at least it tells pollsters it believes—that patriotism entails paranoia. Some floating but substantial portion of the country seems to believe that Barack Obama must be an African, a Muslim, an Arab, or something strange, foreign, wrong—something un-American.
When I think back to "what it was like" in the dreadful weeks and months that followed September 11, 2001, I think of the stench. The acridness was intense where I lived, about a mile from Ground Zero; it's unbearable to think about what it must have been like in the fatal zone itself. It took quite a while to realize that the smoke bleeding out of lower Manhattan for months was the residue of God knows how many tons of steel, glass, plastic, electronics—and, not least, human flesh.
What was destroyed went on destroying. In just such a way, the country's spasmodic response to the massacres wrought havoc, and goes on corroding the country's highest ideals.
Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University. He is the author of many books, including Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election, with Liel Leibovitz (Simon & Schuster, 2010); The Intellectuals and the Flag (Columbia University Press, 2006); and, most recently, a novel, Undying (Counterpoint Press, 2011).
Also in this special issue:
Charles Kurzman asks: Where are the Islamic terrorists?
Evan R. Goldstein explores an oral-history archive.
Jacques Berlinerblau reflects on Ground Zero.
Peter van Agtmael captures images of 9/11's aftermath.