To put the September 11th terrorist attacks into proper context and perspective, to offer some measure of comfort or insight, is a nearly impossible task. I think mostly of what we – as a nation, and as a world – lost on that day. 2,996 people died, but what’s harder to calculate is just how profoundly our lives changed because of those lives lost.
If the goal of terrorism is to inspire fear and terror, then the 9/11 attacks could hardly have been more successful. And if we look beyond the number of lives lost directly because of the attacks, we see a society engulfed in fear and its negative macro and micro consequences.
Air travel experienced a tremendous decline in the aftermath of 9/11 – some estimate by as much as 20%. Instead of flying, many people opted to travel by car. Car travel, of course, is considerably more dangerous than air travel – an average person is 60 times more likely to be in a car accident than a plane accident. American travelers, afraid of flying in airplanes because of 9/11, took to the highways, and as a result, car accident-related deaths increased drastically over the next year. For example, the renowned German risk analyst Gerd Gigerenzer estimated in a 2004 study that an additional 1,595 people were killed in car accidents. That’s nearly 1,600 people – not included in the official 9/11 death toll – who died because of fear, because of terror.
That’s the estimable amount of damage. Far more difficult to determine is the effect 9/11 has had on our nation’s psyche. Daunting security measures at the airport, confusing terrorist warning scales, 24-hour news networks that traffic in fear mongering… these things all have contributed to our culture of mistrust and suspicion.
The Patriot Act and the US Department of Homeland Security rode a wave of widespread public paranoia into violating our Constitutional rights to privacy, in a way that is scarily Orwellian. Because we don’t value privacy and civil rights so much as we value our own privacy and civil rights, these ideals being violating seems a small price to pay when we’re being sold on “safety”.
That’s one of the truly tragic consequences of 9/11: Even years later, we’re a deeply divided and pessimistic nation. So distrustful of government are we that there are still many people who believe – despite limitless amounts of evidence to the contrary – that 9/11 was a hoax. Our paranoia over the previous decade has often gone out of control (Remember anthrax? SARS? Swine flu?).
It’s easy to forget now, but 9/11 was, initially, a deeply unifying event for the United States and the world. We all remember where we were that day, and we all have a story to share. The tenth anniversary should be an occasion for us all to come together and honor the dead. Instead it’s widely being treated by various media as a means of pointing fingers. Rather, let’s gather together and remember what we lost, and pray for a future of empathy, understanding, and hope.
Originally published on the ten-year anniversary of 9/11, September 11, 2011.