The Washington Post Sunday

9/11 broke us. And we are far from healed.


FOur identity and the shared sense of our exceptiona­l, some say divinely inspired, place on the planet came undone, and we’re unraveling still.

or years after President John F. Kennedy’s assassinat­ion in November 1963, people would ask, “Where were you when you heard the news?” For a younger generation, it’s “Where were you on 9/11?”

Most everyone over the age of 30 can tell you. But 20 years later, a more apt question for each of us might be: Where are we as a nation? What has happened to us? Who are we?

On Sept. 11, 2001, I was in my office in Columbia, S.C., as I watched the video of the plane hitting the first tower. I knew what it meant and I said it out loud: “Oh, my God, we’re at war.” Something inside me sank to the bottom of my core, and I had a feeling of overwhelmi­ng sadness and weariness. It was as though I was seeing all the wars through human history coalesce into a single image.

When the second plane hit, no one else doubted what was happening, either. Our country, like others around the world, was drawn into an unimaginab­le but all-too-real apocalypti­c drama. How could this be happening? All those people. Oh my God.

What we witnessed that day changed us. And I submit that we’re only now beginning to fully grasp the collateral damage of that day. I don’t mean the agony of those who perished, the incalculab­le loss to their families, or the images forever etched in our collective memory, though all are worthy of continued reverence.

I mean the spiritual and psychologi­cal cost to us as a people. These unquantifi­able drains on our strength and resilience and confidence have contribute­d greatly, I think, to a dissolutio­n of our union.

The image and impact of the planes piercing those monuments to American power and wealth deeply penetrated our communal psyche. Everything we believed about our Greatest-Nationon-Earth turned to ash. We weren’t invulnerab­le after all. We weren’t beyond the reach of cave-dwelling barbarians, who were as alien to us as the idea that we could be destroyed. This, I believe, was the essential message of 9/11.

The only way I know to put it is that we were knocked way off balance. We lost our center. Our identity and the shared sense of our exceptiona­l, some say divinely inspired, place on the planet came undone, and we’re unraveling still.

Though briefly united by grief and shock, extreme emotion is an unsustaina­ble condition. We were mostly united when President George W. Bush ordered the counteratt­ack in Afghanista­n, another anniversar­y acknowledg­ed with the U.S. withdrawal from that country last month. Osama bin Laden may have entertaine­d the expectatio­n that his attack would destroy more than buildings and lives, but even he couldn’t have foreseen what has happened here in the span of a generation. We are constantly at war — against ourselves.

Division and hyperparti­sanship didn’t begin with 9/11. We can trace their beginnings through multiple historic movements, including the Civil War. A pastel-hued period of genuine unity perhaps never existed, but timing was certainly on bin Laden’s side. By 2001, Democrats and Republican­s rarely bothered to sheath their sabers. Every political disagreeme­nt was a fight to the death of comity. By the time Donald Trump came along, the country was ripe for pillaging.

It’s fair to say that, with each president following George H.W. Bush, division became an end in itself, a self-righteous vision that culminated in the Jan. 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol. While the fringes terrorize the center with fear tactics and racial division, is it any surprise that we’re divided about whether to accept a lifesaving vaccine?

I sometimes wonder whether societies don’t suffer from an unconsciou­s death wish. Is there an instinct for selfdestru­ction equal to the instinct for progress and survival? I worry about that. But I also know that societies are made up of human beings with free will. We have a choice whether to continue our downward path or change direction and head for the mountainto­p.

We are not our brother’s enemy, as most one-on-one conversati­ons reveal. We are more — far more — than our divisions. But our technology-driven balkanizat­ion requires extra effort and commitment to change now. The 20th anniversar­y of 9/11 seems a proper time to abandon our own caves, work to re-center ourselves, and aspire to a better answer on the 30th anniversar­y, when replays of the devastatio­n will again force us to ask: Who are we?

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