9/11 as Political Trauma

By: Jocelyne Cesari

September 11, 2019

Reflecting on 9/11 Across Generations

Like most Americans, I watched the collapse of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001 on television. I also witnessed how some Americans unleashed their fear of and anger against Muslims or people who looked like Muslims. Although the onslaught of anti-Muslim violence eventually tapered down, it was replaced by systematic discrimination toward and demonization of Islam in the public debate, revealing that the anxiety created by the attacks did not go away. In fact, historians may look back to 9/11 as the “critical juncture” at which American political and religious conditions started to morph into the situation we know today. In this respect, I cannot help but to make the link between this tragic event and the current political attempts to “make America great again.” The two decades since 9/11 have seen dramatic changes not only in U.S. foreign policy, but also in societal and cultural stability, which have contributed to the persistence of post-attack trauma. Of course, the conditions of these changes were in place before 9/11, especially in regards to economic, educational, and social inequalities.

What has changed, however, is the outlook of most Americans on their situation. 9/11 has shaken the conviction that America is the champion of right values on the international scene. Such an attack on American soil came as a shock, triggering the question that agitated many minds in the following months: Why do they hate us? Coming from France, I realized at the time that most Europeans would not have asked such a question. Centuries after colonization and two world wars, Europeans understand why the West is unpopular for its imperialism, cultural oppression, and predatory economy.

Until 9/11, Americans saw themselves as members of a nation which had the responsibility to disseminate liberal values, human rights, and democracy—without being weighed down by the guilt of a colonial legacy. Such a mindset is no more. The U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq and the impossibility of building strong democracies there have led to a gnawing sense of helplessness. One of the most significant outcomes of World War II was the active international role of the United States in maintaining the liberal order. Americans were proud of their position as global leaders, even if they were never really interested in international affairs. Today, a majority of Americans disapprove of the war in Afghanistan and feel threatened by the global engagement of their country—from immigration to terrorism. They are also aware of the growing bad reputation of the United States abroad. In fact, a recent Pew survey shows that the negative perception of the United States has steadily increased around the world in the last two decades, even in nations that are U.S. allies.

In such circumstances, it comes as no surprise that a lot of Americans aspire to isolationism, hence reverting to the position characteristic of U.S. diplomacy before World War II. With a difference: The new isolationism not only relies on domestic resources, but also interacts with the world with the sole goal of satisfying American interests first. Certainly the inherent feature of any state is to preserve and increase its resources even when justified by noble goals such as democracy, freedom, or economic development. However, American leaders of today do not refer to such “noble” goals to explain their engagement in the world. In other words, the Emperor has no clothes.

The aspiration to isolation does not mean that Americans can find solace in domestic affairs. In fact, the sense of insecurity abroad is intensified by the sense of insecurity at home. For example, the number of shootings in the United States has grown at an alarming pace, to the point that no month or even week passes without a random act of gun violence. Besides physical insecurity, cultural and social insecurities are also running high. Three-quarters of Americans think that public trust in the federal government has been shrinking, and 64% believe the same about the level of trust between citizens. 

Such deep mistrust of political institutions as well as the lack of trust among citizens are worrying signs of civil and democratic decline. In fact, a growing number of young people do not think that democracy is the best political regime. The unrealistic ideal of political consensus and the perception of cultural disagreements as uncompromising conflicts are hollowing out our democracy. History tells us that democracies do not strive on consensus but on the capacity of integrating into one political community the never-ending growth of ideological, cultural, and religious differences. As a consequence, the desire for isolationism vis-à-vis the international world is doubled down by multiple bubbles in which Americans seek safety by staying away from their fellow citizens of different backgrounds—level of education, income, sexual orientation, race, or religion.

The unexpected consequence of 9/11 has been an eroding of the optimistic perception that consensual centrist democracy is the most successful path for human improvement or even the end of history as prophesied by political scientist Francis Fukuyama after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The crucial question for the next two decades: Can we move away from the dominant sense of despair and insecurity caused by the loss of the liberal consensus and embrace an alternative conception of democracy?

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