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September 11 – An Opportunity to Evolve Our Humanity

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It's been eight years since 9/11 and much has changed in this country since that dark day.

What didn't change, however, was our inability to take time to reflect on the meaning and implications of this tragedy.

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Instead, we panicked to the point that we still are unable to view the day clearly or logically, let alone respond to it responsibly. In some instances we have been willing to give up our civil liberties in the name of national security and fold against an aggressive presidency that was adamant about swooping up as much power as it could--ostensibly to protect us from the terrorists. The result? Terrorism has neither been reduced (as if it could be measured) nor have our fears of it subsided despite an investment of nearly $1 trillion on two wars. And now, after a year into the financial crisis, our uncertainties about jobs, health care and middle class life have only multiplied.

But let's look at one notable moment when people attempted to deal with the horror of 9/11: New Yorkers were helping each other and being nice to each other. They cried together and comforted one another in the midst of death and loss. Likewise, citizens from all over the world sympathized with America and genuinely felt badly that terrorism had come to our shores. It looked as if there might be a "great turning" response to violence.

But once the politicians and the media got a hold of 9/11, they resorted to the usual rallying cry for revenge and retaliation. Americans acquiesced by waving their flags and displaying them on their cars, their houses, on their lapels, everywhere. (One older German woman told me it reminded her of Hitler and the Nazis.) Such activity helps to win public support but it ended up a missed opportunity to respond to tragedy in a new and different way.

Truth be told, Americans don't deal well with tragedy. After the initial shock is over and the recovery effort begins, we generally resort to going on with our lives as though nothing happened. The fallout of this approach is that we are overcome by sadness, anger, fear, or denial over what has happened--and it stops there.

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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.

Today, we are a nation exhausted by war to the point that we avoid talking about it! In fact, the war has largely disappeared from view. Coverage of war in 2007 occupied 23 percent of news content compared to 3 percent in 2008, according to the American Journalism Review (June 2008). During the presidential primaries and general election, the subject of war barely came up. President Obama's promise to end the Iraq war has led to a step up of the Afghanistan war.

So how might we approach 9/11 in a more meaningful way? Here are a few ideas, but please add more.

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1. Join with others to talk about what you TOGETHER can do to substitute fear, hatred or denial in your family, neighborhood or community.

2. Refuse to watch the repetitive "news alerts" or inflammatory pundits by turning off the radio, TV, and the Internet. Recognize that such coverage is intended to agitate emotions, especially anger and fear--and to sell ads. Don't let yourself be manipulated by people making money off you.

3. Lobby your congressional representatives to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Olga Bonfiglio is a Huffington Post contributor and author of Heroes of a Different Stripe: How One Town Responded to the War in Iraq. She has written for several magazines and newspapers on the subjects of food, social justice and religion. She (more...)

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