Patrick J. Deneen
September 11, 2001, we are frequently told, is the day that "changed everything." For the 3,000 people in New York City and Washington D.C. who were killed on that blue-skied day, and for their families, that 9-11 "changed everything" barely suffices to describe what happened on that day. For the many more thousands of people in our military who have been deployed in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and for their families, their years of service have been very different than would have the case been before the attacks. For these people in particular - a fragment of our population - September 11th changed everything.
For the rest of us, very little has changed.
Our national descent was likely accelerated by the events of that day, but that discernible course was not fundamentally altered. Our national ethic of consumption and distraction, while discomfited by the economic shocks experienced over the subsequent decade, remain our way of life. Our national reliance upon international militarism as our main discernible pose toward the world remains evident. Our recourse to the language of technique to confront deeper questions of moral crisis remains regnant. That a mere seven years after the attacks, the rot of our economic system came clearly into view - a system based upon a Ponzi scheme (yes, I said it), graft, debt and a "get-rich-quick" mentality that was universally shared, should at least give us pause about our character and our capacity for serious self-discernment.
Our immediate responses were two-fold. First, we were told by President Bush that we should "go shopping," and - finding it the easiest call to national "sacrifice" ever made - we followed his advice with abandon. We especially bought and sold property - countless sub-par piles of hastily constructed drywall structures unworthy of the first little pig - "paid for" by plentiful "cheap" money that we borrowed seemingly without limit. While 9/11 families continued to feel the anguished absence of loved ones whose lives were snuffed out inexplicably on a day they went to work or took a flight, and soldiers and their families prayed that they would not die on that day in the desert or the mountains far from home - we shopped. We spent - as families and as a nation - massive and finally uncountable amounts of money that was not ours. Many of our finest families became nominally rich on their "equity," turning their houses into piggy-banks which led to the purchase of more houses and a king's ransom in luxury goods.
A favorite television show in the years that followed the attacks on 9-11 became "Flip that House," joining other notable "reality" programming of the past decade that reflected the depth of our national seriousness and purpose after the attacks, such as "Jersey Shore" and "Keeping up with the Kardashians." During this week we have tuned in momentarily to recall the attacks and our hours of disbelief, and perhaps above all to be believe and hear voices intoning that we can feel deeply; but, tomorrow, we will return to our regular programming of empty carbs and circuses.
Second, we deployed. Every nation must defend itself, and a price doubtless had to be exacted from Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. If there was no shortage of money to borrow in the housing market, the attacks of 9-11 justified the unquestioned and unquestionable, and perhaps finally incalculable expenditure of national treasure in pursuit of a small terrorist sect who spent roughly $500K to bring down the towers. According to one estimate, the United States has spent $7,000,000 for every dollar spent by Al-Qaeda in response to the attacks - or, one-fifth of our current national debt.
In the meantime, we have refused to understand the attacks of 9-11, as well as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - not to mention much that has preceded those events in America's growing involvement in the Middle East since the 1970s - as further expansion of, and evidence for, our age of resource wars over a diminishing pool of that most essential source of the industrial age - petroleum. It is not tantamount to the heresy of "blaming the victim" to note a fact that is rarely commented upon about the rise of Osama bin Laden, preferring as we do simply to understand him as an incomprehensible, mad, fanatic: he was one of a wave of "fundamentalists" whose main complaint was the presence of Western, and especially American, troops in "Mecca." That presence was the result of the invitation of the House of Saud dating back to the 1940s, when a cozy bedfellowship created by Saudi need for Western scientific prowess and Western need for Saudi oil fostered an unholy alliance that led most recently to an American president bowing to a desert sheikh. While bin Laden's response to this perceived incursion of the "infidel" into holy land was heinous and despicable, the truth is that we have been the main party in supporting a deeply pathological political and economic system throughout the Middle East, all in the name of securing "oil markets." Yet, we remain "shocked, shocked," that we are hated especially in this part of the globe. In the meantime, our smartest people tell us the solution to this geo-political struggle is "interreligious dialogue."
It goes without saying that, for all of our "support for the troops," we will be willing to deploy them everywhere, anywhere, and for any length of time, as long as we can put cheap gas into our weed whackers.
The golden thread that runs through our response to 9-11 is how little has changed, especially considering our incapacity to subject our actions to probing and even discomfiting scrutiny. Above all, we are unwilling to question the obscenity of our blithe consumption, our foundational economic reliance upon usury, our addiction to irony and distraction, and our unswerving capacity to discount the effects of our current actions upon future generations. Can we really believe that future generations will not look back upon our era with disbelief, astonishment, and even horror?
9-11 was a lost moment to gain a clearer national self-understanding, but we have instead embraced a national ethic of self-deception. A decade later we are nearly in ruins. We have wrecked our economy through our failure to exercise prudent and responsible "household management" - the Greek roots of the word "economy." We have wrecked our political system through our failure to see clearly what even (or only?) Sarah Palin was willing to pronounce recently - that we have lost the Republic and have gained an oligarchy. We have wrecked our primary educational institutions in the name of "self-esteem" and "no child left behind"; we have dismantled our vaunted liberal arts inheritance once aimed at teaching limits, character, and virtue, for the utilitarian ambitions of "assessment," job-preparation and STEM. We have wrecked our moral ecology with our willingness to trade vibrant local cultures in which families and communities might flourish, for a global profit-making anti-culture of distraction based largely upon pornography and violence. We have wrecked our physical ecology for the inconvenience of not having to live within ten miles of a market and the convenience of not having to wash the dishes.
Much of the greatest damage in all these spheres of life has occurred in the decade since 9-11. So perhaps I'm wrong - everything has changed. But it has changed because we have not.