There’s been a lot of talk this week about how 9/11 has changed things. For example, the Huffington Post has introduced a section titled “9/11: A Decade After” in which, according to Arianna Huffington, they will explore “all the ways in which we’re different since that day.” Also, PBS recently had a piece in which some of their reporters reflected on “the day that changed everything” and MSNBC had an article about how 9/11 had changed individual lives.
In many ways 9/11 has changed things on a personal level. Clearly, those who lost friends or loved ones on that day have experienced a profound change in their lives. In addition, members of the military and their families have made many sacrifices for our country since that day. For the rest of us, we’ve experienced changes like stricter security in many public gathering places and when traveling by air.
But in a fundamental way, 9/11 didn’t really change our country. As NPR quotes from a New Yorker article written by George Packer:
The attacks were supposed to have signaled one of the great transformations in the country’s history. But the decade that followed did not live up to expectations. In most of the ways that mattered, 9/11 changed nothing.
One change we have experienced as Americans has been a new, acute awareness of a change to the world that had been going on for some time.
Globalization and the inter-weaving of different parts of the world had been happening for years. Many of these changes had been creating stress and upheaval in other parts of the world, like countries in the former Soviet Union and the Middle East. But we Americans tended to feel removed from that turmoil, protected by oceans the way some communities feel safe behind gates.
We generally hadn’t noticed that change because it happened gradually over time. It’s like the change from summer to fall: the weather changes gradually for weeks, but we don’t really notice it until one day we realize summer’s hot days have “suddenly” been replaced by the crisp days of fall.
In a similar way, 9/11 suddenly made us aware of how the world had changed and had become much more tightly interconnected. As Joel Achenbach noted in the Washington Post:
Blessed by geographic isolation from the rest of the world, Americans did not feel vulnerable on their home soil. Most terrorism events had happened in distant places such as Lebanon, Kenya, Tanzania, Yemen.
What 9/11 did was remove the illusion of American invulnerability; of safety provided by great distances.
So what are we to do with this hard-earned loss of illusion? Perhaps we should start by recognizing and coming to terms with the realities of our interconnected and interdependent world.
This is not a new idea; it was proposed by Robert Wright in a Slate article in November 2001. In writing about the post-9/11 world, Wright pointed to a “big idea” that would help us understand this world: interdependence.
The idea that modern history makes the peoples of the world increasingly interdependent goes back at least as far as Kant and includes such contemporary writers as Joseph Nye, Robert Keohane, and, lately, me.
He went on to suggest that Bin Laden was a reflection rather than a source of this change:
Is “interdependent” really the best way to describe our relationship with a cave-dwelling man who is bent on destroying our civilization? No, but Osama Bin Laden is just the foam on the ocean. He is the guy that history happened to cough up as a surface manifestation of underlying forces of growing interdependence. He is also a handy reminder that interdependence isn’t all sweetness and light.
Today, awareness of our global interdependence should be widely acknowledged. A rational analysis of today’s global economy, in which trouble in one place can upset the apple cart halfway around the world, makes clear how interconnected we all are.
Still, some people seem consumed with the notion that we can regain our old illusions. They devoutly pursue a faith in “Individualism” for both our country and its people. To them, any problems we face today are purely the fault of liberals and the government. All that’s needed is to let everyone do whatever they want to do – at least economically – and everything will be just fine.
But in the long run, any world view that passionately denies the reality of our interconnected, interdependent world is doomed to failure. Such passion can create a great deal of suffering for individuals, and it can cause our country to be passed by as other nations not subject to that passion successfully adapt to today’s world. But the world as it is – interconnected and interdependent, is here to stay.
Ten years after 9/11, it’s high time we accepted that fact and started dealing with it.