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Fearing Fear Itself

A moment of silence that has lasted 10 years

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In the next few days, we're all going to be asked to remember Where You Were on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. Already, the route-number displays on Port Authority buses are instructing us to "Never Forget 9-11-01"; we'll probably soon be treated to photographs and soundbites  we thought we had forgotten: George W. Bush promising to Rid the World of Evil-Doers. The Flag Being Raised, Iwo Jima-Like, Over the Wreckage. We'll ask ourselves What We Learned and How We Changed. 

Ten years on, it seems to me that What We Learned that day was how to be spectators to our own fate. Which is why We Changed hardly at all.

Beneath the sorrow and horror of 9/11 was a feeling that doesn't have a name. A feeling that We Were Not In Control -- that for once, someone else was writing the script. Until then, most of us thought of history as something that happened to other people. We were the world's lone superpower, the people who made things happen. We weren't accustomed to being the people things happen to.

We've gotten used to it since. Our own country seems to have gotten away from us.

 Today, we can kill terrorist masterminds half a world away, but we can't bring justice to Wall Street, whose machinations nearly detonated our economy. And the richest country in the world always seem a trillion dollars short.

If extremists were to blow up one of Pittsburgh's bridges, we'd spend billions bringing them to justice. But maintaining those bridges -- more than a quarter of which are structurally deficient, according to PennDOT -- now seems beyond our power. Thanks largely to the wars we launched in response to 9/11, and the tax breaks we've extended to the wealthy, our government can barely afford to clean up from a second-rate hurricane.

And this is happening amid dire warnings about the impact of global climate change, which will likely alter our way of life far more than anything Osama bin Laden ever dreamed of doing.

After 9/11, there was some talk about Reducing Our Dependence on Foreign Oil. But that has mostly involved oil-drillers fouling the Gulf of Mexico, and governors doing the bidding of the natural-gas industry. As for conservation? Let's just say that these days, there aren't as many Port Authority buses reminding us to Never Forget.

Yet our response to these misfortunes is, if anything, more shell-shocked than our response to bin Laden's attacks. 

American complacency dates back long before 9/11, of course. (Remember the 1990s?) But after 9/11, passivity was a domestic policy. President Bush urged us to defy the terrorists by "enjoy[ing] life the way we want it to be enjoyed." Visit Disney World, he said, and continue our "participation and confidence in the American economy." 

In fairness, Bush also urged Americans to be tolerant, not to carry out reprisals on Muslims. ("We're in a fight for our principles, and our first responsibility is to live by them.") And with some exceptions -- a Koran-burning preacher here, a cable-TV network there -- Americans agreed. To our credit, very few of us tried to take the law into our own hands. 

But few of us have taken anything else into our hands, either. When workers at Verizon strike, rejecting giveback concessions to a firm making outsized profits, we shrug. "They should be glad to have jobs," we mutter. America's wealthy, meanwhile, are about the only segment of the population that has prospered in the past decade. Yet taxing a bit more of that prosperity, in the face of massive deficits and crumbling infrastructure, is something our government can't bring itself to do. Our economy and our government are held hostage by a different kind of fundamentalism, one that venerates markets above the people they are meant to serve.

The 9/11 attacks didn't change us, except to confirm some of our worst habits. With the exception of tea-partiers, who seem to be actively trying to make things worse, we're still glued to the TV, afraid to go out into the street. 

Yes, this Sunday we ought to honor the victims and the heroes with a moment of silence. But if we're going to save the country they died for, it has to be our last.

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