Today we have considerable understanding about what occurred on September 11, 2001, and why. We forget that at the time we all grappled in the dark for answers. The irony was palpable. What was being called a defining moment lacked clarity. Why was that? The jumble of mixed messages about the “attack on America” that was coming from Washington and the media those days, and from political analysts and religious leaders, indicated a terrible collective worldview crisis into which the nation had been plunged.
In our more humble moments today, we might be able to remember that America had suddenly been forced to deal with problems so revolutionary and intractable that there was a shaking of the foundations. National life had been going along fairly well for a pretty long period. The Cold War had ended in 1991 and we all hoped for a more durable peace. But suddenly life was no longer normal. Things that had been taken for granted were now being seriously questioned, even by the “experts.”
Although it was refreshing to hear such humility expressed by many political analysts, the hard truth of it was that answers those days were few and far between. A terrible unknown had knocked America off its stride and the nation was scrambling to make sense of what had occurred. The nation was processing one of those (fortunately) rare phenomenon called a national worldview crisis.
In recent posts we have been discussing how deeply the crisis effected our personal lives and worldviews, as individuals. But it was, of course, a collective worldview crisis as well, one that deeply effected Washington as a political entity, despite the public image it put forward as being in control. Washington’s treasured and basic ideas for understanding and responding to such a national emergency had suddenly been called into question, for there had never been one like this one.
It was, in my opinion, worse than that of another attack from the air sixty years earlier – on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese air force. Although that surprised the country and plunged it into a terrible national crisis, it was nevertheless understandable an act of war by one state, Japan, against another state, America. And as such Washington could immediately process what had taken place and lean on the traditional way of response: the war system.
In other words, Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor emerged from the modern way of thinking about war – state versus state. It was easy for that generation both to understand what had occurred and to recognize the kind of response in kind that would follow. America would go to war and was able to do so. Everyone got this. The nation could be mobilized. Washington could be confident that America could effectively meet the challenge.
The attack on the United States from the air sixty years later was not a Pearl Harbor kind of surprise. It came not from a state but from a group of non-state actors called al Qaeda, led by the religious militant Osama bin Laden. It struck the nation with fundamental unknowns on both preparedness and response. This left the President and everyone else uncertain about why it had occurred and how to respond. Significant books have been written about this early period of ambiguity in the White House. It was amid this kind of national worldview crisis that Washington had to try to identify where the rough ride had landed the nation, and what the response should be.
Sans a reliable map by which sense could be made of the attack, or what the wisest response to it should be, I hasten to add that I had some sympathy for the White House, its advisers, and the Congressional committees responsible for America’s national security.
Story continued next post…..
©2014 by Charles Strohmer
Image by Ed Yourdon (permission via Creative Commons)