Confronting September 11 remains illusive for most Americans partly because we have been unable as a nation to understand or inquire about why the perpetrators of this heinous crime would do such a thing--and partly because we unwittingly entered the realm of the "terror dream."
The "terror dream," which Susan Faludi discusses in her book of the same name, is the American frontier-wilderness story where we are attacked by "uncivilized enemies" in our struggle to settle the North American continent. This story line is full of victimized women and children, Wild West six-gun shoot-outs, hyper-masculinity, and epic heroism.
This "captivity narrative" became a popular literary genre from the mid-17th to the late 19th century but it lives on today through what psychologists call a "transgenerational transmission of trauma" where survivors of a tragedy are left feeling humiliated and enraged. They often repress their grief and fail to allow for any collective grieving because to do so would require taking responsibility for the trauma. Instead, the survivors pass on their feelings of helplessness, shame, and rage to subsequent generations who then carry these feelings unconsciously as a potent memory and marker of their identity. It's as though subsequent generations lived through the trauma themselves so that when another tragedy strikes, the feelings of the past are automatically projected on to it.
America's response to September 11 was to go to war against the terrorists first in Afghanistan and later in Iraq because we were essentially replaying an old story where we saw ourselves as victims of an "Indian attack" so we had to fight back to survive. George W. Bush assumed the role of a Dodge City marshal in a Hollywood Western who promised to "smoke out" those responsible for the attacks--and Americans willingly followed the script in an attempt to make sense of the tragedy with something familiar.
The problem with revenge and violence, however, is its detrimental effect on our humanity, as we saw in the horrendous situations of Abu Ghraib, Fallujah, Haditha, and Guantanamo. Meanwhile, most Americans glaze over the fact that war in Iraq has resulted in at least one million Iraqi deaths, mostly civilians (based on the 2006 Lancet Report), and the wasting of 4,342 American soldiers with nearly 31,500 wounded. An unprecedented percentage of our soldiers have committed suicide or deserted their ranks. Many of their marriages and friendships have ended. Veterans are denied benefits they were promised, including health care for non-physical wounds like post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD). The war has also inflamed religious fanaticism and apocalyptic thinking at home as justification for continued war and violence.