Nine Eleven


Alexandria, VA September 11, 2001, we are frequently told, is the day that “changed everything.” For the 3,000 people in New York City and Washington D.C. who were killed on that blue-skied day, and for their families, that 9-11 “changed everything” barely suffices to describe what happened on that day. For the many more thousands of people in our military who have been deployed in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and for their families, their years of service have been very different than would have the case been before the attacks. For these people in particular – a fragment of our population – September 11th changed everything.

For the rest of us, very little has changed. Our national descent was likely accelerated by the events of that day, but that discernible course was not fundamentally altered. Our national ethic of consumption and distraction, while discomfited by the economic shocks experienced over the subsequent decade, remain our way of life. Our national reliance upon international militarism as our main discernible pose toward the world remains evident. Our recourse to the language of technique to confront deeper questions of moral crisis remains regnant. That a mere seven years after the attacks, the rot of our economic system came clearly into view – a system based upon a Ponzi scheme (yes, I said it), graft, debt and a “get-rich-quick” mentality that was universally shared, should at least give us pause about our character and our capacity for serious self-discernment.

After the first flush of horror and the desire to help, our long-term responses were two-fold. First, we were told by President Bush that we should “go shopping,” and – finding it the easiest call to national “sacrifice” ever made – we followed his advice with abandon. We especially bought and sold property – countless sub-par piles of hastily constructed drywall structures unworthy of the first little pig – “paid for” by plentiful “cheap” money that we borrowed seemingly without limit. While 9/11 families continued to feel the anguished absence of loved ones whose lives were snuffed out inexplicably on a day they went to work or took a flight, and soldiers and their families prayed that they would not die on that day in the desert or the mountains far from home – we shopped. We spent – as families and as a nation – massive and finally uncountable amounts of money that was not ours. Many of our finest families became nominally rich on their “equity,” turning their houses into piggy-banks which led to the purchase of more houses and a king’s ransom in luxury goods.

A favorite television show in the years that followed the attacks on 9-11 became “Flip that House,” joining other notable “reality” programming of the past decade that reflected the depth of our national seriousness and purpose after the attacks, such as “Jersey Shore” and “Keeping up with the Kardashians.” During this week we have tuned in momentarily to recall the attacks and our hours of disbelief, and perhaps above all to be believe and hear voices intoning that we can feel deeply; but, tomorrow, we will return to our regular programming of empty carbs and circuses.

Second, we deployed. Every nation must defend itself, and a price doubtless had to be exacted from Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. If there was no shortage of money to borrow in the housing market, the attacks of 9-11 justified the unquestioned and unquestionable, and perhaps finally incalculable expenditure of national treasure in pursuit of a small terrorist sect who spent roughly $500K to bring down the towers. According to one estimate, the United States has spent $7,000,000 for every dollar spent by Al-Qaeda in response to the attacks – or, one-fifth of our current national debt. We will never know for certain how many people have gotten rich off of the “war on terror, but we at least have an inkling of the existence of a growing and largely unaccountable “top secret America.”

In the meantime, we have refused to understand the attacks of 9-11, as well as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – not to mention much that has preceded those events in America’s growing involvement in the Middle East since the 1970s – as further expansion of, and evidence for, our age of resource wars over a diminishing pool of that most essential source of the industrial age – petroleum. It is not tantamount to the heresy of “blaming the victim” to note a fact that is rarely commented upon about the rise of Osama bin Laden, preferring as we do simply to understand him as an incomprehensible, mad, fanatic: he was one of a wave of “fundamentalists” whose main complaint was the presence of Western, and especially American, troops in “Mecca.” That presence was the result of the invitation of the House of Saud dating back to the 1940s, when a cozy bedfellowship created by Saudi need for Western scientific prowess and Western need for Saudi oil fostered an unholy alliance that led most recently to an American president bowing to a desert sheikh. While bin Laden’s response to this perceived incursion of the “infidel” into holy land was heinous and despicable, the truth is that we have been the main party in supporting a deeply pathological political and economic system throughout the Middle East, all in the name of securing “oil markets.” Yet, we remain “shocked, shocked,” that we are hated especially in this part of the globe.

It goes without saying that, for all of our “support for the troops,” we will be willing to deploy them everywhere, anywhere, and for any length of time, as long as we can put cheap gas into our weed whackers.

The golden thread that runs through our response to 9-11 is how little has changed, especially considering our incapacity to subject our actions to probing and even discomfiting scrutiny. Above all, we are unwilling to question the obscenity of our blithe consumption, our foundational economic reliance upon usury, our addiction to irony and distraction, and our unswerving capacity to discount the effects of our current actions upon future generations.

9-11 was a lost moment to gain a clearer national self-understanding, but we have instead embraced a national ethic of self-deception. A decade later we are nearly in ruins. We have wrecked our economy through our failure to exercise prudent and responsible “household management” – the Greek roots of the word “economy.” We have wrecked our political system through our failure to see clearly what even (or only?) Sarah Palin was willing to pronounce recently – that we have lost the Republic and have gained an oligarchy. We have wrecked our primary educational institutions in the name of “self-esteem” and “no child left behind”; we have dismantled our vaunted liberal arts inheritance once aimed at teaching limits, character, and virtue, for the utilitarian ambitions of “assessment,” job-preparation and STEM. We have wrecked our moral ecology with our willingness to trade vibrant local cultures in which families and communities might flourish, for a global profit-making anti-culture of distraction based largely upon pornography and violence. We have wrecked our physical ecology for the inconvenience of not having to live within ten miles of a market and the convenience of not having to wash the dishes.

Much of the greatest damage in all these spheres of life has occurred in the decade since 9-11. So perhaps I’m wrong – everything has changed. But it has changed because we have not.


  1. Thanks, Professor Deneen, for this. It was especially sobering after leaving a mass that ended with “God Bless America” (at least there wasn’t a flag in the nave or sanctuary).

  2. RJ:

    It seems to me that Deneen loves and cares deeply for his country and is trying to do his bit to save what is best about the USA. You may disagree with his assessment, but it is more than uncharitable to assume he despises his own country.

  3. Loyalty is more admirable when given to church, family, and place than when entrusted to the secular nation state. Even our country, although preferable to many others, often employs utilitarian ethics to scary ends. Take for example Hiroshima, Dresden, Roe v. Wade…

  4. RJ: THANK YOU. Today is not the day to be proclaiming this. I fully agree with you. Deneen’s hypocrisy is amazingly evident in all of his writings. Once he follows in the footsteps of “Shop Class as Soulcraft,” I will respect him. Until then, he is an agrarian poser doing worse things for the movement than any gas guzzling neocon. Keep spewing your empty rhetoric, PD.

  5. RJ’s comment was little more than tendentious question begging. I’m almost tempted to stoop to his level and posit in repose, “It must be difficult for you, blindly worshiping the state, justifying imperialism, and valuing American lives over Muslims.”

    As for AM, his comments are largely rhetorical. He dislikes Deneen’s article because he seems to believe that the anniversary of a monstrous attack on American soil is not fit to both remember the attack and evaluate our monstrous response–the perpetuation of massive consumerism at the expense of outsiders, the emergence of the security state, the extension of American empire via the prosecution of at least one unjust war, etc. Why this makes him a hypocrite is not clear, unless AM knows for a fact that he does not live the life he preaches (which does NOT necessitate living on a farm. If you think this, I would seriously suggest that you need to read Aristotle on the Polis). But the bigger question is–and one AM never substantiates–is why today it is inappropriate, especially given how distracted Americans are every other day of the year by modern “conveniences?”

  6. Yeah R.J. and A.M. anybody who disagrees with the government “Hates their Country”, thats a new one, like I haven’t heard that one before.

  7. RJ, I don’t perceive a tone of hatred in Deneen’s commentary. What I perceive is disappointment and concern. But then I don’t perceive hatred of Israel in the jeremiads of the Old Testament prophets.

  8. AM- If you’d ever been to Alexandria or knew anything about it, you’d know it’s neither “filthy,” nor a “suburb” of DC.

    In fact, the city was founded in 1749 and incorporated in 1779. Much of what is now called “Old Town” in Alexandria has been preserved from that time, including Gatsby’s Tavern and Christ Church, both of which were frequented by people like George Washington and Robert E. Lee. And anyone who says Alexandria is “filthy” has never been there- it’s the most affluent city in the area around DC and is packed with local business and historic attractions.

    While I agree that the 10th anniversary of 9/11 is probably not the occasion for a retrospective of Deneen’s views, I don’t think it’s fair to charge him with hypocrisy simply for living in Alexandria and being a professor.

  9. To those who find PD’s rhetoric troubling: The reason opinion pieces this conflagratory are necessary is the fact we, the American public, are so comfortable in our (environmentally/morally/intellectually) climate-controlled world that very little can make us desperate enough to search outside the usual, Wal-Mart options for political, communal, and even familial action.

  10. Professor – you said it good!

    I sure didn’t hear hatred of America in that piece – what I heard was anger that we have become this, I heard anguish that we have become this. I for one share that nager and anguish. I wonder often what our Founding Fathers would think if they saw what we have become.

  11. My thanks to those who came to my defense against several ad hominem attacks. While appreciated, still, these well-intentioned efforts give too much credit to several wan attempts at criticism. Classical rhetoricians taught that when an argument is too powerful to be assailed frontally, attack its author. The strategy worked in the following respect: much of the commentary has dwelt on questions of my standing, rather than the argument itself.

    I learned from right-wing talk radio the other day of a survey which found that 66% of Americans believe that America has changed for the worse since 9/11. Apparently I am far from alone in my assessment. Where I likely differ from many, however, is in my departure from the typical response to such a conclusion. In the case of the radio host, he immediately sought to lay blame on someone – or, someone else. The discussion was devoted to efforts to lay blame for our worsening conditions on the doorstep of President Obama and the Democrats (his callers were only too willing and happy to oblige). I’m sure if there were effective left-wing talk radio, there would be a similar attempt to lay blame upon President Bush and company. Recognition of worsening conditions is acceptable as long as someone else can be blamed.

    What I believe offended some readers was the mere suggestion that the American public as a whole has participated in our descent. This is harder to hear, since it suggests that all of us – current author included – are complicit.

    I do not write from hatred, but from sadness and regret. Even, perhaps, from hope.

  12. Regarding Deneen’s alleged surrender monkeying:

    Love of nation is a broad spectrum, as well it should be. The loudest critics often stem from a love not easily described, nor quantified. Those who seem to be the most estranged are frequently embracing something very close and intimately engaged with what it is…to be…..”an American”. One cannot devote a life to the study of Tocqueville without an abiding love of this remarkable benediction turned nation.

    We forget our Palmer Raids with too much ease.

    I am reminded of R.E. Lee’s attendance at church soon after what must have been one of the most heart-breaking capitulations in American History.

    The rambunctious cavalry of Tennessee hoped he might retreat to the hills and prosecute a guerilla war after the supply trains west of Richmond failed to show up when promised. Guerilla war is almost always assured of victory. But it requires a strong stomach and a bottomless appetite for collateral damage, much like that we see now in the near east. Many in Europe hoped he might just throw all cares to the wind and keep the American war machine preoccupied with its own. Everyone looked to Lee. The North could only ever hope to reduce General Lee’s choices, they could never fully beat him.

    But Lee was a man apart. He sublimated self for the welfare of a nation too long at the sordid affairs of war. As a prelude to the negotiations at Appomattox, he asked “at what cost?” Fortunately, for those still living, he’d seen enough death and depredations of the war-sallowed southern countryside. Lee saw first hand how little recompense is given to the Generals of any War when their soldiers die for a cause championed by men and woman barking from well behind the front lines.

    Lee surrendered , a good man lost his war. Fortunately, good men in opposition put forth reasonable terms and despite the sordid nature of Reconstruction, this nation survived into a day within which it has come to know neither itself nor recognize what it once meant for even our most hostile critics. Reconstruction has come home to roost. We are now our most formidable enemy.

    But back to Lee’s attendance at church. Roundly beaten, his home confiscated, his beloved Virginia laid waste, his reputation within the victorious nation permanently besmirched, this noble man strode up to the bar at the front of the congregation and embraced a black woman who all were shocked at for her tartly impudent stroll to the front. Lee physically embraced his own personal catastrophe and he did it with aplomb and grace. Lee was likely a man deprived from a larger national life by a civil war we could have avoided . Needless to say, Europe was more than pleased to see us fight ourselves. China no doubt enjoys the spectacle now.

    This nation, full of jingoistic pieties within a period of fear, she needs her critics, they give her strength.

  13. Corey – I suspect A.M. meant morally “filthy.” Indeed, if I read Dr. Deneen correctly, he likely is not too impressed by the affluence of Alexandria (although I have no doubt he appreciates the historicness).

  14. To make one addendum to Mr. Sabin’s point, I think a reference can be made to Professor Deneen’s disposition, a reference with which he is quite familiar: “He was a fervent critic of the American regime because he was an anguished lover, and nothing is clearer in [his] work than the depth of his concern for American public life and culture.”

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