9/11 and The Devolution of American Society

September 11, 2011

There is no better way to honor the victims of the 9/11 attacks than to behave honorably as Americans. While the endless recounts of the events on that horribly tragic day seem appropriate in most cases, sensationalist in others, I feel that is it more important to reflect on how our country has actually devolved since September 11, 2001.

Over the past 10 years, our political and social climate has become extremely polarized and saturated with “otherism” — the “us” versus “them” mentality. Our ability to communicate our ideas and find solutions to our problems has deteriorated. In essence, it seems that our society is devolving. Moreover, it feels that not only our ability but our desire to engage the “other” for his/her opinion or perspective has eroded. Characterizations of our political or social opponents with the most extreme imagery and rhetoric available at rallies and town hall meetings reminds me of one of the most tumultuous times in the U.S. history — the 1960’s.

The old has become new again:

  • In the 1960’s, racism, exacerbated by ignorance and segregation, created an environment that was wrought with vitriol. Those who would protest against basic civil rights shouted the most hateful things imaginable at young Black Americans who simply wanted a high-quality education.
  • Many Black Nationalists who were victims of racism spoke with hatred towards all white Americans, not just their oppressors.
  • During the 1940s and ’50s, it was popular for American politicians to accuse each other and citizens of disloyalty, subversion, or treason without any evidence of such. (You might know this as McCarthyism.) The adjective politicians used against those who disagreed with them was “communist,” and today it is “socialist,” “Muslim,” or “unpatriotic.”

The Americans who practiced the “otherism” of their time did not demonstrate the ability to identify the humanity in the those who were different than themselves. They instead used the “otherness” to incite fear in the populace. We started doing all these things as soon as the smoke cleared from the fallen towers.

As we mark the ten year anniversary of 9/11, I can’t help but to wonder if the attack was a catalyst for 21st century “otherism” and the devolution of American civility. The identification of a true American enemy, Al-Qaeda, seems to have corrupted our ability to distinguish our friends from our enemies. The reactionary characterization of all Muslims as potential terrorists, and the constant attack on the rights of Muslim Americans since 9/11 is a violation of the democracy our forefathers envisioned. Furthermore, entrenched partisanship seems to have paralyzed our democracy.

As human beings, we have an innate fear of the unknown. However, the thing that distinguishes us from primitive societies is our ability to resolve our negative instincts with rational thought. If we continue to wall ourselves off from dissenting opinions, we will find ourselves alone in a dark empty room of our own ideology, wondering how the world has evolved past us. How far will we allow our society to devolve? How long do we expect a “house divided” to stand?

We have real differences, and real similarities. Take advantage of opportunities to get to know the people around you who are different from you. Speak openly and honestly about your American experience and listen without judgement. In doing so, we may find a way to continue to evolve in the post-9/11 world.

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