What Did We Learn From 9/11?

Human beings have great difficulty accepting and dwelling in such existential vulnerability. We fall into what the philosopher Martin Heidegger called idle talk.
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The terrorist attack of September 11, 2001 was a devastating collective trauma that inflicted a rip in the fabric of the American psyche. In horrifyingly demonstrating that even America can be assaulted on its native soil, the attack of 9/11 shattered Americans' collective illusions of safety, inviolability, and grandiose invincibility, illusions that had long been mainstays of the American historical identity. Witnessing the instant deaths of more than 3,000 civilians, Americans were forced to recognize that they are just as vulnerable to assault, destruction, death, and loss as any other people on earth. The tragedy brought us face to face with our existential vulnerability and with death and loss as possibilities that define our existence and that loom as constant threats. This was the terrible lesson of 9/11.

But human beings have great difficulty accepting and dwelling in such existential vulnerability. We fall into what the philosopher Martin Heidegger called idle talk--forms of discourse that serve to cover over our human finiteness and the finiteness of all those we love. We succumb to a kind of forgetfulness of our finite kind of being and to a forgetfulness of the terrible lesson we learned 11 years ago today.

Such forgetfulness began soon after 9/11, as Americans fell prey to the rhetoric of the Bush administration, which declared war on global terrorism and drew America into a grandiose, holy crusade that enabled Americans to feel delivered from trauma, chosen by God to rid the world of evil and to bring their way of life (= goodness) to every people on earth. Through such resurrective ideology and its rhetoric of evil, Americans could evade the excruciating existential vulnerability that had been exposed by the attack and once again feel great, powerful, and godlike.

Nearly 10 years after the attack of 9/11, Osama bin Laden--a contemporary symbol of radical evil--was killed. Understandably, most Americans were glad that a monstrous mass murderer was brought to justice. But what was happening when jubilant crowds reacted to the killing by chanting and cheering "USA"? Was this not another effort to resurrect American invincibility? Are we not once again in danger of forgetting the terrible lesson of 9/11 and of succumbing to a forgetfulness of our existential vulnerability?

Such forgetfulness of the vulnerability of our existence has been rampant in other sectors of American life as well--for example, in the obliviousness to the perils of nuclear power and global warming. But perhaps there is hope. President Obama brought tears to my eyes when, in his acceptance speech at the DNC, he contended that climate change and the threat it poses to human life on planet earth are not illusions. We need leaders like Obama who remember, rather than forget, the lesson learned on 9/11.

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