American Culture

Healing the never-ending national trauma of September 11

We cannot heal from the national trauma of the September 11 attacks until we stop re-traumatizing ourselves every year.

The Scream, by Edvard Munch (image credit: edvardmunch.org)

A few years ago I discovered that I had come to dread the approach of my birthday. It wasn’t for the usual reasons, like the fact I was then approaching 40, or the fact that my body just can’t do what it used to be able to. Instead, my dread stemmed from the proximity of my birthday to an important Supreme Court decision – Roe v. Wade. And every year, I got more and more sick of hearing the same old arguments between pro-choice and pro-abortion liberals (of which I am one) and anti-choice and anti-abortion conservatives. My birthday is fine, but hearing Roe v. Wade discussed every year had become traumatic.

The same thing happens to me every year on September 11, and I’ve finally hit the point where I have to ask: how much longer are we going to keep re-traumatizing ourselves every year?

The United States went insane after the September 11 attacks. We and our allies invaded Afghanistan, which was at least understandable if not necessarily wise. Then we invaded Iraq under false pretenses, deposing Saddam Hussein and in the process flipping the table out from under the house of cards that was the Middle East. And we turned people like Erik Prince (founder of Blackwater and brother of Betsy DeVos) loose to tarnish what was left of America’s good name. We allowed the creation of the USA PATRIOT ACT, warrantless wiretapping, and the creation of the Guantanamo Bay prison and a parallel justice system outside the purview of the Supreme Court, all of which are about as unAmerican as it gets. We the people were so terrified that we collectively made a bunch of really bad decisions that we’re going to be recovering from for at least another generation.

And yet we keep re-traumatizing ourselves every year, treating September 11 as a “never again” moment. How many of us realize that by doing so we’re elevating the deaths of a few thousand Americans in a terrorist attack to the level of the Rwandan genocide, or the ethnic cleansing of Yugoslavia, or the slaughter of millions of Jews in the Holocaust? As bad as September 11th was, it’s not ethnic cleansing or genocide, and anyone who tries to say otherwise is either badly misinformed or spouting propaganda.

Worse even is the fact that elevating September 11 to a “never again” potentially justifies horrible behavior on our part. Extraordinary renditions of people accused of being terrorists to nations where torture is both legal and common is an affront to our national values. How far are we willing to go to protect ourselves from another terrorist attack? The United States is more than capable of smashing ants with hammers, but in so doing we risk sliding even further off the moral high ground than we already have.

The False Mirror, by Rene Magritte (image credit: renemagritte.org)

By picking at the scab of our trauma every year, we don’t give ourselves the chance to heal, to come to terms with our collective PTSD. Every September 11, we’re reminded why we’re still supposed to be afraid by those who think it’s in their, not our, best interest that we remain afraid. And so we continue to thrash about like a wounded bear, raking our claws on everything we can reach and mauling anyone who gets too close, even our fellow citizens.

I think it’s past time for America to leave September 11 to our history books and teachers. If we want to read the names of the dead, we do so privately to ourselves and our families. If we want to visit memorials, we do so without demanding that the entire nation revisit them with us. It’s past time for September 11 to become a private pilgrimage for those who choose to make it.

Because it’s past time for America to stop dwelling on the terrors of our past and start looking forward to recovering what we lost in the years of our collective madness.

Note: It’s possible that my post above is more indicative of what’s going on in my own personal news bubble vs. the wider world. I’m sorry to anyone who was re-traumatized by my post who had otherwise made progress in healing.

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