September 11, 2004. Today we will again hear people discuss what happened 3 years ago, remembering the towers (and the people in them), the airplanes, the police and the firefighters.
I didn’t know anyone who died in the towers. I don’t live anywhere near them. For me it was just another day at work until one of my co-workers asked, “Jim, do you know anything about a plane hitting the World Trade Center?”
I didn’t, so I opened up a browser and read about it. Then someone turned on the television in the break room. The second plane hit. The Pentagon was hit.
After the fall of the second tower, all the national news web sites were deluged with requests, making it impossible to find out much of anything. I ended up following the news via Slashdot and watching video streams from the BBC.
Afterwards, people constantly referred to September 11 as “the day that changed everything.” I may just be contrarian, but, I’ve never fully agreed with that. What I’ve always assumed that people meant by that is that they’d never fully felt that terrorism could happen in the United States until September 11.
I’d always assumed that terrorism could, and, (probably due to following the news too closely during the 80’s and 90’s) it had never ocurred to me that it hadn’t. So, I was shocked, but not surprised.
What change did occur after September 11 seems as much related to fear as to surprise. Fear is a funny thing. There’s fear that results from understanding a risk, but still being unsure you’re ready for it despite your best efforts. In that situation, however, you still feel you have some control over your destiny.
The sort of fear terrorism provokes is another thing. With terrorism you find yourself afraid that at any moment something bad might happen, something that you have no control over at all.
In psychology, there’s a group of theories known as “locus of control” theories. The one I know best is Aaron Antonovsky’s Sense of Coherence theory. At core, it assumes that people who feel a sense of control over their lives handle stress, sickness and life in general better than people who don’t.
Whatever the strengths or problems of the theory (and the school of theories it comes from), it does illustrate a point–people need a sense of control over their lives.
What I haven’t seen in Antonovsky’s theory (possibly because I’m no longer following the literature) is what people will do to get their sense of control back when it is temporarily shattered. I only know what I’ve seen.
My family flew to Florida to see my brother’s wedding just 3 months after September 11. My sister got stopped in each airport (Grand Rapids, Cincinnati and Tampa) to get her shoes checked. No one else in my family did. I could only wonder why. I hadn’t thought people working on doctorates in creative writing were particularly threatening.
Also, I remember making sure that my swiss army knife was going through with the luggage as opposed to being carried on my person. This was the period when they were taking away nail clippers if you happened to carry them on the plane.
Of course, airports weren’t the only place affected, Congress passed legislation in the wake of September 11. Some related directly to terrorism, some indirectly. The United States went to war twice based on the idea that going to war in Afganistan and then Iraq would make things safer here.
Whether or not things are safer is subject to debate. Personally I don’t think we’ll know for a while yet. I just hope that any laws and policies that were created under the influence of September 11 are revisited when people have the time and have lost a bit of the reactive fear associated with the memory.
We are closer to that now, I think. The first anniversary was still like a fresh wound. The second a bit less so. This year felt a little more normal.
This is a good thing. I don’t want the country to lose the realistic perspective that some people in the world definitely hate us, but I don’t want us to base our foriegn policy on unrealistic fear either. When we treat people as if they are potential terrorists and ally with dictatorial regimes because they may be useful in fighting terrorists, we undermine our own reputation and goals in the world.