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Is Another Pre-9/11 Era Truly Impossible?

The immediate surge in a vacuum beside your stomach – below the heart, where patriotism swells – tells you absolutely yes. It sits there, forever rubbing against gastro-lining, like something that will make you sick but never actually does. The media wouldn’t let you forget. Your neighbors wouldn’t let you forgive – not Bush, not those anti-Bush, not anyone who played a part in the nightmare. (Which is everyone.) But is this true? Are those days gone or is it just too painful to go about getting them back?

Historically I have to wonder how pre-9/11 is impossible, but pre-WW2 returned right around V-E Day. Trenchant hatred lingered east, but the feeling of relief was unmistakable. Was it the barbarity of al-Quaeda’s attacks, then? How do they compare to the Third Reich?

There’s something odd about the conviction that those days are long gone. And so far the reasons I’ve heard have been weak at best, like:

“TSA lines are too long now.” Taking off your shoes seriously occludes inner peace?

“The culture of fear is too strong.” England had shells falling out of the sky and the defiant refusal to cower colors every English face alive today.

“The media has divided America.” Or have they enabled you to live out your fears, to assign blame like you’ve always wanted to? You know it is a never-ending supply of a darker if lesser euphoria. The moment you include would-be enemies among your kin, blatantly skewed facts are blatant.

“9/11 defined us.” No, the response defined us. If anything, the real healing would begin with how impulsive we were, regarding our first major foreign attack in sixty years.

“We have been in too many wars over there for too long.” This is even less indicative of a permament peace fracture than Vietnam, WW2, WW1, Revolutionary, et al. Are we supposed to hold a deeper hatred because it’s an unofficial militia? Because “the rules of war” are not in effect? Because, oh gee so unlike WW2 and Vietnam, it’s ideological? What exactly is untenable about this peace fracture? We aren’t even at war with a nation or a religion. We are at war with nations that we imagine to uniformly support a religion that we imagine will always hate us. (Neither of which are true, but hey.)

“Our leaders will never abandon a post-9/11 mentality.” Our leaders engorge data about us. Since sentience, they have crafted their talking points around the political climate. We tell them what to say to us, primarily through our fears.

Donald Trump never happens in the halcyon 90s. We allowed the space for his oozing orange pus to fester by remaining fearful.

“Theirs is a religion that wishes death to America.” An indescibably small sect has seized power from the ruins of society: ISIS secured a foothold via anti-Westernism like Hitler took power through anti-Semitism. Which is to say, they didn’t. ISIS feeds on opportunity in a barren landscape. They offer money, education, and security to hopeless families who comply – and death to those who don’t. ISIS protects families from ISIS. Hitler took a postwar Germany to the Promised Land, and the worst that humanity has ever seen followed.

“The wounds are too deep.” I don’t know what this means. Because, to be honest, it’s narcissistic to think your pain is the one that will not end. Like the horrors of the past were bad and all, but it’s a bridge too far when it happens to me! I think it really means Twitter and Facebook won’t let us heal.

“I cannot unsee the images.” This actually makes the most sense. It is an image that seems to occupy the space where tranquility used to fit. It is undeniable and permanent. But if we cannot replace the image, can we not build on top of it? Change its meaning and its context – until the soul has not silence, but almost silence? Everything within an era is capable of semantic satiation – that is, to be seen so many times that it’s washed of its original meaning. But first we have to allow it to be within an era. I do not doubt that 9/11 could be carried with us into the next millenium. I do not doubt that our DNA could read ATGC911. But I think eventually we realize: we’re better than this. We want to believe that things are changed forever, because then nothing is really our fault. We are designed to change things forever in ways that we think will benefit us, and sometimes we are mistaken: the digital age changed things forever, for instance, and took journalism as a casualty. Eventually the body wants to progress, wants to do whatever it can to flatten 9/11 and build on top of it, make it part of old history like the Italian catacombs. Digital immediacy distorts our perception of time; regardless, there will be a post-9/11 era as surely as there was a pre-. We just have to decide what the 9/11 era – which, make no mistake, we are still in – looks like first.

“The recent attacks are random and senseless.” Another fact that I do not dispute. I’m going to posit something that may rankle some: our fear of the attacks is really a fear of systems. The odds of death are not as tangible as the idea that there’s a force of death building, waiting to sweep through a town like a storm. Given such, a great deal of power can be removed from ISIS through statistics. If you could statistically be assured that the likelihood of being killed by ISIS were lower than being killed by, say, a young white male in a school or movie theater, would you feel more threatened by young white men? You can see where I’m going with this. My elementary school was 9.8 miles from Columbine when it happened. I went to Arapahoe High School. I saw quite a few movies at the Aurora theater. I drive through Colorado Springs. I am not afraid of movies or schools because I do not look for systems.

What difference does it make whether a killer has a political or religious agenda, if it’s statistically more likely for me to be killed by an apolitical agnostic? It’s the same reason people avoid planes for deadlier trains: more tangible to imagine dying. If anything, I should be fretting the deterioration of mental health, but we can’t really put a frightening b/w logo to that, so we go about trusting young white males in schools.

Ultimately, Post-9/11 is not as much a “new reality” as it is a call to understand our more complicated natures. (Discouragingly we don’t seem to want to ever do that.) When we say that our peace of mind was taken away forever, what peace are we referring to? As reactionary individuals, peace exists insofar as we can forget its enemies. I seem to recall learning that JFK’s assassination changed America forever, and yet that was pre-9/11. Were people saying that about Lincoln’s slaying? Perhaps the real issue is that healing, here, requires accepting a culture that looks and sounds nothing like the dominant Western culture – which would explain our still-frosty relations with Russia.

Whatever the case, there is a blessing in our impermanence as a species: contextualized horror fades.

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About the Author

Chris O'Toole (Colorado State '12, Chapman '15) recently finished a Screenwriting MFA. He has written for Livestrong, CBS, and other publications. Love, hate, and job offers can be sent to: