I published this article on 9/12/01, under the title “9/11: The Day America Grew Up.”
Let’s hope this is what future historians write about yesterday’s events. If not, we won’t be here—and won’t deserve to be:
September 11, 2001, was the day America grew up. Its adolescent rebellion against all its roots—individualism, science, capitalism, individual rights, reason—ended with the force of a single day’s events.
In many respects, America was at its peak. Despite its acknowledged problems, it was a spectacular civilization. In a mere two hundred years—a brief period in the life of a nation—it had established the most successful republic respectful of individual rights in history; it had generated both the Industrial revolution of the nineteenth century and the technological revolution of the late twentieth; it had successfully outlawed slavery and largely eliminated racism; it had raised the standard of living, for itself and much of the world, to levels royalty could not have conceived of one or two centuries earlier.
Despite this unprecedented success, more and more Americans began to ignore—or even mock—the very things which had made these awesome accomplishments possible. They began to teach their children that business, capitalism, and science were evil. They turned the other cheek and tolerated enemies at every possible opportunity … Through their indifference and nonchalance, they communicated to their enemies that they did not value their freedom. Their communication was heard.
Aside from the bombing of Pearl Harbor—which ignited the United States’ role in World War II sixty years earlier—the United States had never sustained any real damage from warfare. Until September 11, they did not know what it was like to have their cities bombed, or to have their most cherished cultural symbols destroyed before their very eyes. They were complacent, adrift, and naïve. They lost sight of the fact that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance, as the American founders had wisely warned.
In such an era of complacency and drift, one would have expected America’s intellectual leaders—its presidents, university professors, media commentators, clergy—to warn them: “Americans, you’ve got to grow up! Wake up! What you have is great. You must know why it’s good, so you don’t lose it. There are those who seek to destroy you. You are better than they are, and you are stronger than they are because your system respects individual rights. Your system is fueled by reason, science, and human mastery over nature, the engines of civilization. The problem is, you don’t know it. You’re afraid to admit you’re better, because you have also been taught to be humble, selfless, and peaceful at any price—even towards bullies. You have been taught to feel guilty for your accomplishments, and to undercut them. This is your fatal weakness.”
Instead, the intellectuals, political and spiritual leaders of the time did exactly the opposite.
They pushed Americans in precisely the opposite direction. They encouraged Americans to hate capitalism, to hate reason, to hate scientific progress. Their professors told them they were imperialistic, heartless and cruel. Their religious leaders condemned them for their selfishness, their capitalism, their materialism. Their psychotherapists told them to understand, not judge, their enemies. Their politicians told them they must give more to the collective treasury and keep less for themselves. Increasingly, Americans bought into it.
In the years leading up to the terrorist attacks, the federal government—instead of only pursuing fraud and violent criminals—spent a huge amount of resources on prosecuting the country’s most successful wealth creators, under anti-trust laws. The same federal government rushed to apologize to China after China opened fire on an American plane. Most incredibly, instead of using its power to protect a young boy who had managed to flee a dictatorship in Cuba, the government used all its power to send him back to totalitarian Cuba.
It was almost as if America’s enemies had taken over the minds and bodies of their leaders. Of course no such thing was possible. America was still a democracy, and its citizens sanctioned all these actions. It was a peculiar, perhaps unprecedented event in human history—an event unique to the United States, precisely because it had been so spectacularly successful and therefore had so much to lose.
It was a slow suicide.
On September 11, 2001, the slow suicide and the era of outrageous complacency reached its climax. On that day, the country—and the world—witnessed simultaneous catastrophes it had never before witnessed, nor imagined possible outside of science fiction or action thrillers.
The United States was no longer a young country. This much changed in a single day. America was no longer a spoiled, rebellious adolescent. It took some years—and several generations—to sort out all the particulars, but this was the beginning. For a rare moment in time, its intellectuals, professors, and media figures—its fawning, ever-apologetic politicians and presidents—were either silent or irrelevant. This was the silver lining
in the catastrophe.
The best of the American spirit was reborn on this day. Something good which still existed inside the people—something lacking in most of its leaders, but still alive (though dormant) in most of the people—woke up. It took losing something great to realize that it was great.
There were many catastrophes that day—thousands of lives lost, irreparable physical and psychological damage done. Like the aftermath of most disasters, it got worse before it got better. But freedom and individual rights did ultimately triumph—this time, though, under a more vigilant watch.
Of all the specific disasters that day, note the one that seemed most horrifying to those who still loved freedom and capitalism — and most uplifting to those who despised them. The worldwide symbol of capitalism — the two gigantic World Trade Center towers — collapsed before the world’s very eyes, like quicksand.
The emotional reaction one felt towards this particular scene, played over and over again on television and the Internet, revealed the essence of who one is: a lover of freedom, or a hater of freedom. On this day, with this issue, there could be no in-between. You were either profoundly horrified or joyous beyond belief. There was no escaping it. Your emotional reaction revealed who you were.
After September 11, 2001, there could be no more gray areas. The era of fearful, cautious, play-it-safe “middle-of-the-roadism” was over. It took many more decades for the intellectuals to understand why. On this particular day, though, every true American could — at long last — feel it.
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