September 11 and American Innocence: What Really Happened to Us?
The other day at the Republican debate, Jon Huntsman said “I think we have had our innocence shattered” by what happened on September 11, 2001. On Morning Joe the journalist Tina Brown called the date “the last moment of American innocence,” and Mike Barnicle described it as “the end of our metaphorical summer as a country.”
Really? It seems as if every time disaster strikes our nation we hear that it’s the end of our innocence, but in truth there has never been an innocent time in the land of the Salem witch trials and the Boston Massacre and John Brown’s raid and our murderous Civil War and . . . well, the list goes on, right up through—not long before September 11—Monica Lewinsky and the impeachment of a president.
In fact, I’d say that if anything the opposite may be true, that a big price of September 11, beyond the lives lost, was that it may have given us a new birth of innocence, or perhaps of destructive pseudo-innocence.
Of course we were completely blameless in the hideous tragedy that befell us. We were entirely innocent in that sense of the word. When the planes struck that morning, the U.S. was, and knew it was, a beacon of freedom. We also were a prosperous land where unfettered innovativeness had by and large made every generation richer than the last. We had shown that we could achieve more than anyone else even while balancing our budgets and cutting our deficits. We felt freer, tougher, stronger, and more resilient than anybody. Then we were attacked by an enemy that was as purely evil as an enemy can be. We had done nothing to deserve the horror visited on us. We were plainly guiltless in an attack that was plainly evil. Only the most extreme, reflexive guilt-seekers could possibly find any American transgression that could begin to rationalize the attacks.
Knowing ourselves as a shining force for good and as blameless victims in what happened on September 11, maybe we let it all go to our heads a little bit. A kind of national naivete seems to have swept over us, an innocence about the consequences of our actions. President Bush told us that we were now at war, but also that we would have to make no personal sacrifices. He launched two foreign wars with no tax increases to pay for them. After the start of one of those wars went well, he appeared, in a burst of overconfidence, on an aircraft carrier under a giant banner reading MISSION ACCOMPLISHED to announce that “In the Battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.” Then as that battle continued, we even forgot that as a nation we had always held torture to be un-American and morally unjustifiable.
As our two new wars began to spin out of control we not only didn’t pay for them but also gave ourselves massive tax cuts and a big new unfunded Medicare entitlement at the same time. Too many of us kept buying bigger and bigger houses, and second homes, while borrowing all the money to do so, secure in our understanding that for Americans life keeps getting better and we all get richer. We cooked up reckless schemes to multiply the wealth from those homes. In other words, we appear to have forgotten, in the long shadow of September 11, that no big thing in life is easy or simple, and nothing comes without a price.
We finally began to see the price we were paying later in the decade, when the wars we had started refused to end, and the housing market crashed and bankrupted millions of Americans, and Wall Street imploded, and the economy went into its worst tailspin since the Great Depression. Finally our new age of innocence ended.
Or did it? In 2008 we rejected all our misdeeds of the previous years by voting for “hope” and “change” and giving ourselves a president who seemed to believe that any problem could be solved if everybody just agreed to be reasonable and get along. Then in 2010 we turned against that choice by electing a Congress dominated by people who seemed to believe that any problem could be solved by lowering taxes and shrinking government, period. If we had been naive through the decade of the 2000s, our naivete lived on, and it continued to get us into trouble.
If that all means that in some sense Osama Bin Laden provoked the U.S. into self-destructiveness, then in that sense he won the struggle he began on September 11. Yet the fact is that he has lost it. His poisonous cause has withered and died. The Arab world has turned definitively against him in the Arab Spring, as the rest of the world turned against him long before.
As for our own naivete, if that is what it was, maybe it is beginning to lift now, too. On September 8, 2011, that ineffectually conciliating president gave a speech presenting a raft of actions to address the ongoing jobs crisis—policies that had all won bipartisan support in the past—in which he repeatedly demanded that Congress “pass this jobs plan right away” and bluntly told the legislators to “stop the political circus.” And the leader of his opposition, the previously unyielding speaker of the House, actually said, “The proposals the president outlined tonight merit consideration.”
Might we finally be approaching the end of an age of innocence now?