[Beliefnet, September 10, 2002]
A year ago everything changed. When the towers fell, we discovered how much we loved this country, and how much we needed each other. We found resources of courage that we hadn’t known were there. We saw challenge on the horizon, and rose to meet it.
And then everything changed back.
It didn’t happen all at once. With the first shock of alarm on September 11, we thought that our lives were in immediate danger. Two cities were in flames; were more to follow? Were we beginning a time of continual terror, with suicide bombers in our restaurants and poison gas in our subways? Would more airplanes fall from the sky? Anything could happen, it seemed, and we resolved to prepare for it.
The last thing we were prepared for was what, in fact, happened: things returned pretty much to normal.
Of course, there have been some lasting changes, and there is no telling what lies ahead. But during this past year the thing that we feared most—that every American everywhere would be in danger—failed to materialize. When the war did not "come home," September 11 began to resolve into an isolated shock, something in the past, rather than the first trumpet of a horrifying new present. As the media mediated it to us incessantly, thoughtfully titled and set to rumbling music, Sept. 11 changed from "news" to "somber moment in history." Those of us who saw Ground Zero only on TV remained deeply moved by the tragedy, but it gradually became someone else’s tragedy. Though we initially feared the worst, with passing months the day seemed less and less to promise danger for our own lives.
It’s a funny thing, but in a way this was a letdown. Not that any of us would have chosen that alternate reality. If you put a hundred people in a room and ask who would volunteer to live in continuing terror and misery, a lot of hands wouldn’t go up, including mine. If that disaster had in fact come, we would now be wishing with all our hearts we could return to safer times.
What we miss, perhaps, was the way that initial shock united and galvanized us. There are qualities that emerge in people only when they have to confront adversity, and it seemed like we were about to face the test. It’s a dilemma: any sane person wants to build a peaceful and prosperous society, and yet too much ease makes us restless. If external challenges are too few we start inventing internal ones, bickering and complaining like spoiled children. While a peaceful society can achieve many advances, there are threads of courage and self-sacrifice that become scarce. We admire those qualities in our heroes, but every one of them were formed by difficult times. Heroism only stands out against a dark background. Still we’ll pick comfort over struggle ten times out of ten, understandably. We admire a hero and despise a spoiled kid, but habitually choose the spoiled-kid life. We tend to want to be what we despise.
Sometimes God takes a hand in this dilemma, as was obvious to the ancient Greeks and Hebrews. When a people grows too complacent, God permits suffering to return them to their senses. The Hebrews saw this as the explanation for their wartime defeats. The Greeks saw a cycle of Luxury leading to Pride, corrected by Disaster. But then Suffering would lead to Repentance, and that would be followed by Blessedness. (Blessedness, taken for granted, turns into Luxury, and the cycle starts again.)
It seems that the heroic virtues don’t emerge except under external pressure; rare is the person who adopts them spontaneously. We need outside help to be good. A child who isn’t spoiled got that way because his loving parents surrounded him with firm limits, and God is likewise "Our Father," giving both comfort and discipline.
September 11, then, presented us with a possible challenge to our complacency, and we faced it with mixed feelings. For the last thirty years or so, we’ve enjoyed comparative tranquility, compared at least to most of history.
The thing is, we don’t like too much tranquility. We start feeling rebellious against all this plumpness and prosperity, and want to kick something (ourselves, perhaps). We demand faster roller coasters, grosser movies, louder music, uglier art.
We’re not idiots, of course; we don’t take *real* risks. These are mostly symbolic poses, like an adolescent’s wardrobe. We are strongly self-protective and fond of being plump and prosperous, given the alternatives. If we are unexpectedly exposed to risks, we sue.
Our grand- and great-grandparents, who through wars and depression struggled with genuine danger in a succession of grim forms, preferred solace: sweet-voiced singers, beautiful landscapes, children’s entertainment that kept innocence protected. We scoff at them as naOve, but actually we’re the ones who have led sheltered lives. The wisdom born of adversity has been rare in recent decades, which is one reason folks who can make a solid claim to be victims have become our royalty, regarded with awe and envy. The trials earlier generations experienced first-hand we know only vicariously, putting people in exotic locations and watching them deal with contrived dangers on TV. For us, it’s entertainment. We’ve gotten so used to big-boom spectacle that the phrase I heard most often from those who saw the carnage only on TV was, "It seemed like a movie."
September 11 felt like it might be the first time our generation would have had to wrestle with a genuine trial, as earlier Americans had, and perhaps we would have risen to the challenge just as well. Perhaps those virtues are within us all the time, waiting for circumstances to call them forth. Perhaps we would have met the threat last September 11 seemed to hold, and come to this first anniversary a nation even more united, more disciplined, more mature, more wise.
It’s a good thing that didn’t happen. Right?