Sunday, September 18, 2011

The 9/11 Decade - A Leadership Gap

We've just recently seen the 10 year anniversary of 9/11. There have been countless articles and pieces of analysis in the media about the topic, but I wanted to touch on an issue that I think many have neglected: the lack of political and civic leadership in framing 9/11 as a tragedy to connect Americans with others across the globe, which I'd argue has resulted in mostly a lost decade. Instead, 9/11 became an event to separate America from others. This helped enable hyper-nationalism and increased American exceptionalism, both very unusual given the nature of the event. Many leaders, particularly political ones, played this up. A consequence has been that Americans are, today, more likely to distance themselves from various out-groups, both outside of, and in, America (the Islamophobia industry is one of the downstream effects of this).

This is all very bizzarre. A horrible tragedy in which thousands of innocent people died somehow separated us from others. Instead of seeing the pointless deaths on 9/11 as the impetus to be more sensitive and empathetic to tragedies elsewhere, the opposite occurred. If the people were brown/lived outside of Europe or North America, they were abstract figures. We killed over 3,000 civilians in the first month of bombing in Afghanistan...but no empathy. Even if one supported that campaign, it was disturbing to see the lack of compassion for the innocent Afghanis who died from our bombs. Innocent and poor villagers in Pakistan who die (the large majority are civilians) in drone attacks? No interest, no compassion. We never connected the fireball that exploded on a 110 story building to the hole in the ground where homes once stood in Baghdad.

Is it because Americans are horrible people? No. The reality is, people have difficult times psychologically dealing with the type of attack we had on 9/11. Emotions run high, and good people can unknowingly want vengeance on anyone, even if they are innocent. This is where leadership steps in. Being an effective leader means you can separate yourself from emotions in critical times and help people deal with tragedy in a productive way. On 9/12, that meant taking people's fear and anger and sadness and trying to bring some good out of it. That doesn't mean trying to turn everyone into an international humanist (is that a term?) or a true world citizen - that is simply unlikely and unrealistic. It does mean helping people connect tragedies, find empathy for others, and ultimately give to others in need to some degree. It could have been as simple as encouraging Americans to look after each other...and I mean all of us, not just white Americans (what happened). It could have been as simple as encouraging Americans to volunteer more, to engage in more community service, to spend more time helping our friends/families/communities, or to follow the news a little bit more.

It's not like much was needed. However, none of this was done on a large scale. Instead, we were told to go shopping. We were told we were attacked because others hate our freedom. Dangerous racism was allowed to pass. Our civil liberties were slowly taken away in pursuit of some supposedly secure state (which is silly, because we can't ever be fully secure - watch the short video at the bottom of this post to find out what all we lost). Everything was framed in terms of what happened to us, and virtually no focus was placed on what happened to others. The attacks in London and Spain were even connected to us as they became their 9/11, as opposed to just a horrible act of terrorism to others. Massacres committed by Blackwater in Iraq, NATO troops in Afghanistan, errant drone attacks in Pakistan, Middle Eastern governments we back on people trying to obtain democracy...not really a blip on our radar.

9/11 somehow became something that separated us from the rest of the world. It became a noun, verb, and adjective in American discourse. It's as if terrorism and tragedy were America's monopoly - nobody else could apparently go through similar kinds of situations...everything was from the 9/11 lens. Our tragedy became bigger than others, instead of similar to others.

That disconnect, that exceptionalism, that lack of empathy and compassion produced a decade in which America took many steps backwards. We've shown a willingness to kill high numbers of civilians in conflicts, some of which were started under false pretenses, most of which our own policies had something to do with, without much of a blink. How many times do you hear American leaders, journalists (from the mainstream press), or just normal Americans talk with some pain about the hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians killed in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, etc.? Almost never. I count a comedian, Jon Stewart, as one of the few that has expressed that kind of emotion. Most others haven't, and largely because nobody steered them towards that view.

We've gone even further and isolated some of our fellow Americans. The Islamophobia industry has really made a (financial) killing in the past decade, turning bigoted zealots like Pam Geller and Robert Spencer rich and into media fixtures. We've attacked Americans who dared question the War on Terror and our aggressive foreign policy in the past 10 years. Again, not saying everyone will agree on policy, but the harshness of the attacks reveals something really ugly that happened to our society.

And on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, what happened? Wall-to-wall media coverage, replaying the attack video ad-naseum, and an almost celebratory stance...our tragedy was worse than anyones. 9/11 should be a day for reflection, for sadness, for thinking about what we can do to make the world a better place. It has, instead, become a day for America to separate herself from the world. It should be a day that tests and shows our humanity for people in general - to paraphrase from the Qur'an, if you kill one innocent person, it is as if you've killed all of humanity. It has become anything but that.

I don't blame American people for this strange turn. Many were emotionally scarred to a significant degree from that horrible day, and human psychology is a complicated thing. However, leadership should have steered that emotion to something productive, and at the very least, to an appreciation of humanity, period. That failure has had terrible consequences for everyone around the globe. The hope is people are finally coming out of the fog here in the U.S. (this does seem to be happening...a financial meltdown does strange things), and are starting to at least reconsider a lot of what has happened over the past 10 years. The reality is, we need to have hard discussions about these issues. We're not going to all become pacifists...but we should all at least think a little bit more about how our tragedy connects us to other people in other places (and even at home). We need to reclaim the humanity that we lost in the past decade. It would be the proper way to honor all of those who were lost on that day, and the many more since then.

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