The e-mail had a simple enough subject line: “Al Qaeda.” It was from my cousin Karen, who also used to be my dentist. I have been, based on my government career in homeland security, the “terrorism expert” in the family. The e-mail came last year on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks:
“Can you help? I’m a little nervous now. My daughter wants to go to NYC for the weekend. But I just saw that they think there could be a 10-year anniversary attack there, so I don’t want her to go. She says I am crazy. I said I could contact you. By the way, how are your gums? Are you flossing?”
Dental care and Al Qaeda: Never before have the two been so closely linked. But there was something illuminating in Karen’s question, something that seemed to herald a different way of thinking about 9/11 as we head into yet another anniversary tomorrow. Terrorism has settled into a place on the list of our modern anxieties — next to gum disease and hurricanes — but it no longer looms as the overwhelming, existential worry that it seemed to be in the first few years after the attacks.
The trajectory of counter-terrorism efforts over the last eleven years — the breathless warmongering of the Bush years, followed by something more deliberate and targeted as the White House changed hands — hasn’t been the only shift. For much of the American public, the terrorist attacks and the security apparatus they launched may be ever-present, but these days terrorism fears are not all-consuming.
It’s fitting, then, that the 11th anniversary is arriving tomorrow with little of the fanfare of past commemorations. There are no major public events. The anniversary has become personal, acceptable to remember in ways that are appropriate to the level of grief we still feel or the commitment of friends and family to the wars still being fought. As a nation, we will meet again in the initial post-9/11 spirit for only two reasons: the 20th anniversary or another terrorist attack.
It is true that one big reason we have been able to move on is because there has been no major attack on US soil since then. Terrorists are now so scattered (or so dead) that operations have been left to easy converts and careless bombers. The threat is diminished, so it’s no surprise that the fear has, too.
But that’s not the only explanation for the low-key commemoration. There has also been an effort by the public to reclaim 9/11 as their own, to give it continuing meaning while toning down the past commemorations that seemed so closely linked to the way terrorism fears were exploited politically after the attacks. After almost eight years of the Bush administration, Americans grew tired of the political manipulation of 9/11. Republicans seem to have realized this: At its convention, the GOP essentially ignored 9/11 and the wars that were fought in its name. The Iraq war, sold to the American public as the natural extension of 9/11, was not even a footnote. And for the Democrats, the Obama administration’s foreign policy has been a lot more about tidying up loose ends from the past — in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and with Al Qaeda — than fanning memories of 9/11. The death of Osama bin Laden was a rallying cry at their convention, but his ongoing relevance is questionable.
And as the politicization of the attacks fades, fear has been replaced by attitudes like my cousin Karen’s. Her question reflected the sincere desire of citizens to get realistic information about terrorism risks so that they can weigh the threat and make the best decisions. It’s not paranoia, just an honest attempt to better understand, and take responsibility for, bewildering information that is so often overwhelming and so rarely presented in a practical way.
Whether this attitude of resiliency holds if there is another major attack will have much to do with what our political leadership tells us. During World War II —