Twenty years ago, American naïveté was hijacked.
Before the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the United States thought of itself as impervious. Politicians believed that the fall of the USSR had resolved all grand ideological debates. Commentators predicted that democratic capitalism would consume the globe in short order. Even scholars talked about the “end of history,” which exalted “Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
Any lingering devotion to the idea that the United States’ preferred forms of governmentality were ascendant came crashing to the ground on 9/11. Far from being perched near the apex of a neoliberal teleology, America found itself reeling from the sudden realization that its $700 billion per year’s worth of military might did not guarantee the nation’s eternal security.
As advertisements showcasing fun-loving families at McDonald’s were replaced with images of planes colliding with skyscrapers on our television screens, the U.S. was thrust into the realm of the uncanny, where the homogeneity of America’s national identity was suddenly destabilized. To borrow from the Bulgarian-French psychoanalytical philosopher Julia Kristeva, a “paradoxical community” began to emerge, “made up of foreigners who are reconciled with themselves to the extent that they recognize themselves as foreigners.”
Ruptures in the U.S.’s security imaginary should have prompted mass existential reflection about the exploitative foundations of America’s obsession with empire. Sadly and at great cost (both in lives and public funding), the nation instead doubled down on its imperial fantasy, with former President George W. Bush launching two wars in the Middle East while urging citizens to “get down to Disney World in Florida,” and “take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.”
“Don’t let the terrorists scare you away from Walmart,” we were told. Shopping uplifts the private marketplace, that most sacrosanct of American institutions and the architectural symbol of which had just violently collapsed. At no time was the connection between the pursuit of global economic domination and the turn-of-the-century American character called into question.
At no point were the consequences of organizing a society around the worldwide promotion of late stage capitalism reexamined. Though our country’s geopolitical grandiosity lay shattered at our feet, we never had a prolonged discussion about the need to forge new forms of solidarity, allyship, and community that are essential to empowering subjugated voices and advancing international unity.
Money was all that mattered. That was the American way.
Two decades later, the U.S.’s crisis response is still driven by greed. Approximately 41 million Americans have contracted COVID-19 since the coronavirus touched our shores, resulting in nearly 660,000 deaths. Entire swaths of the country, particularly in the southern states, are battling unprecedented case loads and hospitalization rates. Yesterday’s nationwide case count equaled 176,427 new infections, a number that is roughly 44 times higher than the total number of cases experienced by New Zealand during the entire pandemic.
Are we following the Kiwi policies of investing in a green economy, funding an arts recovery, and shuttering businesses to protect public health? No. Here, senators who are disproportionately empowered by Congress’s broken policymaking rules, like stalwart fossil fuel defender Sen. Joe Manchin, are undermining efforts to assist financially vulnerable families and address the climate crisis, no matter what the cost may be to people and the planet.
Pediatric cases are currently surging in the U.S., accounting for 25 percent of new infections. Yet, the possibility of schools returning to distance learning is slim because education systems are viewed as the country’s primary form of childcare for American workers. Even the Biden administration has called for in-person learning to continue, despite evidence that some large school districts, such as Hawai’i’s, are willfully violating federal safety guidelines.
We are literally sacrificing our children to boost corporate profits.
After 9/11, you would think that Americans would be more leery of human sacrifice. Many of us are, but too few of our leaders are listening. The situation is eerily similar to the days after the assault at Ground Zero, when the voices of those crying out for peace were muffled by those clamoring for vengeance. Hundreds of thousands of souls died in the combat that defined the aftermath of the fall of the Twin Towers, in wars that U.S. leaders are only today bringing to a close.
We still have time to rescue a commitment to communal empathy from our collective trauma. We still have a chance to thwart a worsening tragedy by putting human lives before dollar signs. If we steer our ship of state back toward the public interest, then in twenty years we will do more than memorialize a senseless loss of life. We will remember this era as a time when we pursued a politics of compassion like our lives depended on it.
Whether we have learned it yet or not, our lives, in fact, do.