September 11, 2001, was all about death.
While humans share with all forms of life a basic biological predisposition toward self-preservation, we are exceptional in our capacity for symbolic thought, for pondering the past, planning the future, and transforming the products of our imagination into reality. We are also uniquely aware that death is inevitable and can occur at any time, for reasons that cannot be anticipated or controlled. That gives rise to potentially debilitating terror, managed through the creation of culture: humanly constructed beliefs about reality that deny death by affording the sense that we are valuable members of a meaningful universe, eligible for immortality.
September 11 tore a gaping hole in the collectively woven American cultural tapestry, stripping us of our shield against terror, exposing us naked to the nightmare of death; a nightmare (to adapt a phrase from James Joyce) from which we have yet to awaken. On that otherwise eerily beautiful day, horrified Americans witnessed the World Trade Center collapse, the Pentagon ablaze, and a plane crash in Pennsylvania. Thousands suffered painful and horrendous deaths. And beyond the literal carnage, the twin towers, tangible manifestations of American economic power, and the Pentagon, emblematic of U.S. military dominance, were destroyed or damaged in extraordinarily short order. Thereafter innumerable images of planes crashing into the towers, people jumping from burning buildings, and rubble-coated survivors reminded us vividly of our own vulnerability and mortality.
Americans initially responded with extraordinary compassion and efficiency. Police and firefighters worked tirelessly. Thousands of private citizens joined them. Blood and food banks overflowed. At public gatherings, we mourned the victims, comforted our families and friends, and reaffirmed our identity as Americans and our affinity with people of good will everywhere.
However, lingering fears of death also stoked hatred, righteous indignation, and demands for lethal vengeance. George Bernard Shaw once wrote that “when the angel of death sounds his trumpet the pretenses of civilization are blown from men’s heads into the mud like hats in a gust of wind.”
In the days after 9/11, the late Lawrence Eagleburger, a former secretary of state, echoed that sentiment when referring to terrorists and those who aided them: “You have to kill some of these people; even if they were not directly involved, they need to be hit.” Gun sales soared. So did President George W. Bush’s popularity after he declared a “crusade” to “rid the world of the evildoers” and pledged to capture Osama bin Laden “dead or alive.” In 2004, experiments by a research group I was part of demonstrated that Americans’ support for President Bush, the war in Iraq, and pre-emptive nuclear attacks on Iran and North Korea increased substantially after they had pondered their own mortality, or the events of 9/11.
September 11 became, psychologically, synonymous with death; and death-laced, 9/11-tinged rhetoric—”death panels,” “job killing,” “death taxes”—became a pervasive feature of political discourse. Tsunamis and earthquakes that wreaked real havoc and death in places afar seemed inconsequential, albeit regrettable: misfortunes in comparison with existential threats to death-denying cultural beliefs closer to home.
Americans also sought psychological refuge from anxiety about death in what the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard called “tranquilization by the trivial.” We gambled profusely, consumed huge quantities of drugs and alcohol, shopped with patriotic fervor, invested with irrational exuberance, and viewed endless television. The traumatic aftershocks of 9/11 made life so painful and difficult that we spent countless hours watching other people living for us. Who will get kicked off the island next on Survivor, drink the most yak urine on Fear Factor, or become the newest American idol? What’s going to happen to the Osbournes or the denizens of Jersey Shore? Let’s see other people make over their houses, clothes, and bodies.
And while military and intelligence personnel got bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan in reality—Mission (not) Accomplished—we took solace in the forces of good “kicking ass” in our dreams. Things always ended well in Rambo and in Die Hard movies; in 24, the federal agent Jack Bauer stopped bombs, viruses, and assassination attempts every week. Osama bin Laden’s death was somewhat surreally anticlimactic, with many Americans still clamoring for the operation to be posted on YouTube.
September 11, 2001, was, literally and figuratively, a deadly day that skewed our conception of death and life. For almost a decade, we have vacillated between vengeful agitation, preoccupied with killing our enemies (real and imagined) to restore faith in our culture, and staying “comfortably numb,” stupefied by television, supersized fast food, and Facebook.
There’s been too much denial of death and not enough affirmation of life. It’s time to recalibrate our collective psychological gyroscopes: to embrace and embody Sherwood Anderson’s tombstone adage that “Life, Not Death, Is the Great Adventure.”
Sheldon Solomon is a professor of psychology at Skidmore College and author, with Tom Pyszczynski and Jeff Greenberg, of In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror (American Psychological Association, 2003)