What Did We Fail To Learn From 9/11?

[Written in 2004.]

Americans experienced the trauma of the 9/11 attacks the same way all adults experience trauma: through the lens of unresolved childhood trauma. In a country packed with immature people parading as mature adults, we reacted to 9/11 in a far less mature way than we might have had we been more enlightened.

The majority of people in the United States have a highly provincial attitude. We’re out for our own interests politically, militarily, and most of all economically – which is exactly how children are supposed to behave in order to get their needs met. The problem is, we’re not children, and the world is not there to sacrifice itself to us. It’s no mystery that we live our relatively wonderful lifestyles at the expense of others who live in poverty. So it’s no great leap to conceive why others might be angry at us, and why a certain percentage would act this out in disturbed and childish ways of their own. After all, terrorists too are traumatized from their childhoods, and the traumatized cannot, by definition, act from a place beyond the level of maturity where trauma arrested their development.

The 9/11 attacks pierced the grandiosity of the United States, as intended. Terrorists, like much of the world, project the worst of their internalized parents onto us – and on 9/11 tried to kill off that part of themselves by killing off us. Naturally they failed, because no acting out, no externalization of unconscious conflicts, can ever hope to succeed in producing healing, but they wounded us nevertheless. When those planes flew into the World Trade Center they burst our collective denial.

But burst denial, though painful, always offers a prime chance to grow – if what lies under it can be studied. Yet America’s reaction was the opposite: to attempt to repair our damaged grandiosity. And few have developed past this attitude. This is how traumatized children react. In the days following 9/11 people spoke of insane ideas like dropping a nuclear bomb on Mecca, and thank God they weren’t in power. As it was, when the smoke cleared all we could think about was how to hunt down and kill those we held responsible for the attacks. Naturally this wasn’t at all us – or our traumatizing parents.

Although those responsible needed to be brought to justice, attempting to destroy the Taliban and Afghanistan – and ultimately Iraq (not to mention our own economy…and the souls of our soldiers, as war is not cheap either economically or emotionally) – was not the answer. We need to truly nurture our relationships with those in the Middle East. And heaven forbid we learn something from them. We need to listen to what Muslims, and especially the fundamentalists, are trying to tell us. They represent a split-off part of our own collective psyche. They may not be telling us in the most mature way, and sometimes are telling us in the least mature way, but they still are trying to tell us something – something that they consider obvious and something so few of us can see.

For our world truly to grow we cannot continue to exploit others in other parts of the world – much less at home. In the short-run it will fatten our coffers and fur-line our sense of superiority, but in the long-run it will be our downfall. In an increasingly global world where technology and information is becoming readily available to all, it will soon be impossible for us to protect ourselves from outsiders. If we do not welcome all into our national family and begin to conceive of our borders not as the Atlantic and the Pacific but as the Earth and the Sky then we as a nation will crumble.

A true superpower should behave like a good parent, and a good parent does not punish. A good parent self-reflects, and uses this as her basis for nurturing those less mature on their journey toward autonomy. A good parent does not exploit others for her own unmet needs, and use her children as the objects for acting out her own unconscious and unresolved childhood traumas. A good parent shares the best of herself freely and willingly, and in so doing builds alliances for all-time, based neither on promises of future back-scratching nor fears of retribution but on love, respect, admiration, and gratitude. A good parent acknowledges that she herself is limited by the buried damages she carries within, but a good parent holds the ideal of full enlightenment as the beacon toward which she grows. And a good parent turns over the reins of power to those she has nurtured when they become wiser and more mature than she. This, and nothing else, is her reward.

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