I watched a few video replays today of that terrible morning twelve years ago when our nation was attacked. I remembered how shaken our world was after the day’s events, how nothing seemed certain anymore, how weak and vulnerable we felt both as a nation and, by extension, as individuals. I remember driving home from work later that week wondering fearfully if life as we knew it had changed irrevocably.
Unexpectedly, some good came in the aftermath of that day. Our nation rallied. It united in support of an America we had forgotten to cherish. We consoled each other. We didn’t go on the attack. We had more patience with each other. We didn’t call up talk shows or visit chat rooms just to troll. We were collectively more pleasant, like we were suddenly transplanted into a Norman Rockwell scene, except that it was hard to forget the cloud of dust that had brought us to that refuge. An act of unprecedented evil and fury had somehow, strangely, brought us peace.
We don’t live in that world anymore. We divide down the middle on virtually every topic. Civil discourse seems so quaint. We’ve lost patience with each other. We’ve grown more judgmental, more opinionated, and more segregated, less willing to empathize, sympathize, and understand. Cynicism spreads like Sarin, just as poisonous, just as pervasive. Our post-9/11 world is the same as our pre-9/11 world, but without the same confidence, the same swagger, the same naivete that proclaimed that the power of America lay in its liberty.
It pains me to label liberty a naive notion. It hurts because I don’t believe it is an attainable notion anymore. I’ve blogged a number of times since July about the NSA and its surveillance activities, how it has collected metadata about our phone calls and emails. The NSA’s reach is surprisingly intrusive, and it both offends and frightens me. I’m not a weaver of or believer in conspiracies. Politically, I am far more trustful of big government than I am of big business. In practice, however, they have become the same, and therein lies the basis for my fear and indignation.
However, as I watched the towers fall twelve years later and recognized regretfully that all that day wrought was more bitterness, more hatred, more division, and more cynicism, I thought to myself, “We don’t want another one of those.” I started to do the math, trying to compare the threat to personal privacy and liberty posed by the NSA’s surveillance effort that, at least nominally, is being done to thwart another 9/11, with the the threat to human life and the collective psyche posed by the occurrence of another such attack. Frankly, I don’t know which poison I’d prefer.
Watching the towers fall used to give me goose bumps. Now it just makes me angry: angry that all we have are two awful options, both of which make us less free.