I have not explained, however, what changed, what is the “everything” that changed. On my favorite blog, Last Psychiatrist, a reader quotes a short description of the Battle of Verdun, and suggests that there is something maudlin about American preoccupation with 9/11. Yes and no.
I don’t think that anyone really believes that 9/11 was the most important instance of man’s inhumanity to man ever. But it may have a special importance for Americans nonetheless. I recall reading in an obscure but fascinating book Painted in Blood: Understanding Europeans that something Americans would have a hard time getting their heads around is that if you are any kind of European, almost everywhere you go, you are walking over or past a battlefield, that the whole continent is up to its eyeballs in blood (this is not meant to be a condemnation of Western civilization, as I assume that this is true for an awful lot of other places too). Americans have been remarkably successful at transforming what violence we have experienced and inflicted into both intention and meaning, because in most instances, American fighting was chosen, the Americans were sent elsewhere, and American involvement was justified in terms of core values. I don’t think Pearl Harbor is that far out of this model either, because whatever the status of Hawaii at the time, I don’t think it was experienced as an attack on America proper, but as an attack on Americans, which is different. 9/11 gave Americans their first experience of something almost everyone else has tons of experience with: meaningless, empty, unchosen violence close to home. Not even losing Vietnam did that. In this sense, it represents a kind of coming of age for everyone here… except of course for those clinging to “the truth,” those who can’t cross that bridge, and instead choose to Vietnamize it, who have to regard it as something “we” (our government at least) chose to inflict upon ourselves. Nietzsche said, “Man would rather will nothingness than not will.” 9/11 was, I think, our first stark look into the pure abyss, a look unredeemed by our attempt to do what we do, which was to turn it into a crusade for something we value (democratization in the Middle East) because that attempt failed. All we have is the image of a band of passengers on flight 93, which is another way of saying: you better grow up, because you’re on your own. Enormous resentment toward whoever forced this passage on us is understandable, and at least a first step on the path to wisdom; but those who refuse to face the fact that vulnerability to meaningless suffering and death is a part of the human condition, and that we overcome it only through our own effort and intelligence and courage and decency haven’t even found the path yet, let alone trod on it.