I started to post something rather trivial about books that have affected my writing, and I realized I really should write something about September 11, this being the day and all. For those only interested in writing, well, this is mostly me rambling about my impressions of the effect on society and a bit on me.
For some background, I was there in New York when it happened. I was in college, right across the Long Island Sound, playing a computer game and waiting to go to class. I still remember the guy who came past my room and told me that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. At the time, I thought he was joking with me. Even so, I followed him down to the waterfront area of my campus. I could see the tower (yes, only one at that point) from there, on the steps of the chapel. I could see the column of smoke from that one and the ruins of the first tower. And I saw the second tower fall.
There was a crowd of us, midshipmen, all wondering what was going on. We didn’t know who had done it, we didn’t know why. We didn’t know about the plane that crashed into the Pentagon or the other one, Flight 93 where the passengers fought back. We were kids, confused, worried, and a little angry that someone had attacked us.
These were things we all, as Americans, felt and learned as time went on. And for those few days and weeks afterwards, we mourned our dead and started our recovery. The event itself wrought profound changes on our society. There was fear and uncertainty, and that caused a shift in what many people were willing to accept in the name of security. This can be seen in everything from TSA, to the PATRIOT Act, and even in the current NSA scandals.
American society has become more risk adverse. This can be seen in politics, our economy, our decline in space exploration, and even clothing trends. It can also, I’d argue, be seen in some of the literature written since. There’s been a shift in American SF, away from the big dreams and vast panoramas of classic SF and towards darker and grittier stories. There have been many more novels about empires in decline or simply futures where humanity never leaves Earth, where the science doesn’t support it and our society has turned inwards. In fantasy, the genre has also grown darker, and either magic has faded out or it is something that corrupts. The reemergence of the antihero and the morally ambiguity of heroes and their choices is another aspect. Right and wrong seems less clear and our world is more frightening; so the unknown and mysterious has become something frightening too.
There are any number of arguments as to why society has taken this turn, but I think in some respects most of them come back to September 11th. Everything from the politicians who stir up further uncertainty to appear strong to the increasing use of ‘retro’ clothing fads to the continuing struggle with the economy… these are products of our own uncertainty as a society. It’s almost the equivalent of societal PTSD… which is ridiculous. In giving into our uncertainties, we fail to properly honor those who lost their lives that day. They would not want us to live in fear. That’s what the terrorist scum who attacked our country wanted.
We have to continue to live life, to dream big and to have confidence that we are strong. We have not yet even begun to test ourselves. We are the country that put man on the moon, created rock and roll, and invented the airplane. America is founded on the idea of big risks leading to big results. That aspect of pioneering is what led to our success in the first place. We are, as a people, drawn to risk, drawn to big dreams. And I would argue, if we let uncertainty and fear take that away, we will lose the very thing that makes us so great.