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9/11 attacks: Is America still dreaming, or writing its own destiny?

Nine years later, America must revisit the 9/11 tragedy with fresh eyes to sort out the reactionary saga of the past decade – and see how it shapes our place in the new geopolitical climate.

By Scott Malcomson / September 10, 2010

New York

One of the stranger aspects of 9/11 is how long ago it seems – until, once again, it seems like yesterday. Part of the reason for this is that, especially for those of us who were nearby when the attacks came, the physical facts of that day and the weeks that followed were fundamentally unassimilable. How could anyone ever assimilate, for example, the idea that on their way to work they smelled burning flesh? At the time, people often said the whole thing was like a dream. Dreams are stories that hold together, yet never really make much sense.

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9/11 was like that.

Americans’ struggle to make political sense of 9/11 has also been dreamlike. Each action and reaction since then served as part of an ongoing story, yet the story as a whole never made sense and still doesn’t. The war on terror, the march of democracy.… The events and raw emotions of 9/11 were so quickly and persistently hitched to one agenda or another that we never had the time to experience and resolve them within ourselves.

Reactions to the mosque

The recent reactions to the so-called ground-zero mosque have felt like some long delayed post-traumatic stress disorder symptom. For that, political or religious demagogy is not good therapy. Indeed, it has been tried enough already, and failed. Instead, we as Americans need to revisit 9/11, in order to see how and why we did what we did. We need to make 9/11 less exploitable. Doing so would help us end the dream so we can again write our destiny in the real world.

If we revisit 9/11 and its aftermath with fresh eyes, we’ll see a series of unbalanced contests: We were in a religious war in which only one side had religion. We were in a fantastically expensive high-tech war against people who lived in caves. We were in a fight for universal values but couldn’t find allies. We were not fighting a nation-state so much as we were fighting terror – a state of mind. Our own state of mind. Just like in a dream.

For these past nine years the non-American world has gone along with its own dreams and its own realities. America has always been exceptional. And for the past nine years it has been exceptionally estranged from the global ebb and flow.

We Americans see the world refracted through 9/11. Nobody else does. And having entered the world nine years ago propelled by 9/11 we are now withdrawing from it, all but abandoned by our allies, with only vague plans for the future. Apparently we have been living through a parenthetical decade.

Destiny of this generation

In a speech last month to disabled veterans, President Obama hit two interesting notes. One was generational: He asserted that this generation – the much-too-young-for-Vietnam generation, basically his generation (and mine) and younger – has, “by any measure….earned [its] place among the greatest of generations.” Have we really? I wonder.