In speaking with friends recently about the Covid-19 pandemic, I attempted to compare it to the impact of the 9/11 terrorist attack. They all felt that the comparison was hard-pressed. They pointed out how calamitous the aftermath of the coronavirus crisis will be. (Never mind how perilous the current state of affairs is.) The world will never be the same, they all said, in ways far more irrevocable than anything we have experienced in the eighteen-and-a-half years since that fateful day.
My friends’ perspective is certainly valid, even if the look and feel of the post-pandemic world is unclear. How we as a society will react to the end of the pandemic is uncertain, but it’s hard to imagine that we will quickly and easily bounce back to the way things used to be. Will we ever feel comfortable in a crowded space again? Will handshakes and hugs ever be accepted as natural ways of greeting each other? Will dining out or going to a well-attended concert or sitting in a movie theater ever be a perfectly normal Saturday night?
Those and many other questions will only be answered after this particular crisis is definitively behind us. But the column I wrote in September, 2002, may suggest how problematic (or surprisingly accurate) any predictions are likely to be. Here is what I wrote then in a column entitled “A Few Contrary Views on the Significance of 9/11”:
Much is being said and written on the first anniversary of the horrific events of September 11, 2001. Most of the rhetoric (from the clergy, politicians and the media) is limited to the generally uplifting (or at least optimistic) views that provide survivors, even those who are still grieving, with some sense of hope or, in some instances, peace.
But the post 9/11 psyche of America is more complex than that narrow range of views would suggest. Here are a few others that, while they may be contrary, are no less valid or significant.
o Our safety is problematic. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the president urged Americans to resume their normal way of life. “Travel,” he said. “See the great sights of our great land. Get on with your lives. Show the terrorists that they cannot defeat America.” These lines were meant, specifically, to shore up the travel (most particularly the airline) industry. Yet, a year later, travel, especially by air, has become far more burdensome, and, many would argue, no more safe. Anecdotes fill the news: of 83-year old grandmothers being subjected to “random” full-body searches, while highly suspicious looking young men are allowed to walk right past the security check point; of individuals who continue to get through the metal detectors and other security checks with knives, box cutters and, in one instance, even a gun, without being detected; of a flight that was about to take off with two drunk pilots at the helm; and of another that turned around after take-off when a flight attendant alerted the crew to a suspicious individual in the first-class section.
These and other “incidents” suggest that the skies may only be marginally safer, while the security measures now in place are significantly more burdensome. As to other potential terrorist attacks, the truth is that, irrespective of assurances from Mr. Bush, Mr. Ridge, or Mr. Ashcroft, the threat will always be incalculable, because the terrorists always can devise new methods of terror. Could anyone have contemplated that the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center would be leveled by our own planes? Surely the mind of the terrorist will always be able to stay one step ahead of the security police.
o We may be engaged in a no-win “war.” The initial military response to 9/11 was highly successful, as a coalition of Afghan rebels did most of the heavy lifting (with America supplying essential air cover and technical support). Within only a few months, the Taliban was defeated, a new interim (pro-U.S.) government was in place, and most of the al Qaeda forces (and leaders) were on the run, in hiding or dead.
Before that initial campaign was concluded, however, President Bush raised the ante, by declaring that three other state governments (Iraq, Iran and North Korea) constituted an “axis of evil.” Of these three, Iraq has been singled out as the most pressing threat to American security, and the United States now appears to be on the verge of a pre-emptive strike that may create a more serious security risk (think oil and Arab-Israeli tensions) throughout that region of the world. The president has pledged to rid the world of terrorists. It is a pledge that may become an albatross.
o A faux neo-patriotism is sweeping the land. Since 9/11, American flags, and replicas of same, have become as fashionable as a Big Mac or an SUV. Americans have always been patriotic, as much, perhaps, as the citizens of any other country. In the current post 9-11 climate, however, the values that have always engendered that patriotism may be less appreciated. If the results of a recent national poll are to be believed, for example, less than half of America continues to support the freedoms of the First Amendment. Of greater consequence by far, however, is the threat to civil liberties that the country now faces, courtesy of the Departments of Justice and Defense. Consider, for example, that America is now a country where its own citizens, if they are categorized as “enemy combatants,” can be locked up without access to the courts or even to an attorney on the sole say-so of those two bureaucracies.
The president has spoken often of the need for sacrifice, which, in the name of patriotism would seem to be a no-brainer, but Americans have not shown a great desire to make those sacrifices. Most favor the no-pain approach, as in no casualties in the war, no increase of our taxes, and no reduction in our energy consumption.
o Many no longer see God in the same reverent light. How could it be otherwise? Faith is always challenged by incomprehensible horrors. But in considering the death and destruction that occurred on 9/11, many, beyond those immediately victimized, are struggling to hold onto their religious beliefs. Indeed, some now regard that the dark side of religion itself has been exposed. The al-Qaeda terrorists are extremists within the Islamic religion, but they acted on their faith just as militants and fanatics of other religions have acted on theirs in inflicting suffering on others throughout the millennia.
Some will hold onto their faith because the alternative is too cold and disquieting. But others are now contemplating whether the God they have worshipped is worthy of that degree of reverence. Is it possible that He may have chosen to allow the attacks of 9/11 to take place? If so, how can this seeming fickleness be explained, let alone accepted?
Are we safer? Is our military capacity being put to proper use? Do we still hold dear those values that have made our country great? Is the God we worship worthy of our reverence? These points may not receive much attention from the country’s political, civic, and religious leaders or from the mainstream media on this anniversary of the day America was attacked, but they are thoughts that may become more significant in the years ahead.