The Decade of Magical Thinking


A Rumpus Lamentation on What We Lost

Say you took the long view of September 11, 2001, the view from the heavens, the view of a compassionate celestial being. From up there, you’d see that approximately 150,000 earthlings died that day. Most of these deaths were caused by malnutrition and age-related illnesses, roughly 1500 were murders, hundreds more were due to civil wars. Also, 2,977 Americans were killed in terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington.


A lot of human beings died, that’s my point. They all left behind mourners.

Imagine the mother who watched her child die of hunger. Here’s this tiny person, a daughter. She has a name, a face. She doesn’t explode or fall from a skyscraper. She simply stops breathing. No cameras record her final moment, the lamentation of that mother. These images are not replayed on the television over and over and over. What would be the point of that?


I recently went on a radio program to discuss the literature of 9/11. The host spent most of the hour chatting with people about their memories. They all talked about watching television. They were telling personal stories about watching television.


One of the duties of the artist – not the only duty, but a central one – is to impel people to imagine the complexity of thought and feeling inside another person. Art complicates moral action, because we have to accept that other people matter, that their hardship and suffering, even their rage and sorrow, are, to some extent, our responsibility.

Propaganda has the opposite aim: it is intended to simplify moral action. People get to disregard the humanity of others. This makes them easier to ignore, deport, imprison, torture, enslave, and kill.


The story of 9/11, the grand fiction we constructed as a culture in the days and months and years afterward, ran something like this:

A band of religious psychopaths, acting without rational motive, murdered the innocence of a proud and blameless nation. Slowly, heroically, that brave nation dug out from the rubble and exacted revenge.

It was a story bled dry of doubt or nuance, a piece of propaganda. It divided the world along the fault-line of the zealot. America had been wronged and therefore could do no wrong.


At one point on this radio show, a TV producer discussed his decision to stop showing footage of the attacks. The host said she wanted to see those images; that she wanted to remember what had happened and how she’d felt. She was glad networks were going to re-broadcast that footage in the next few days. She added that didn’t want to see people jumping to their deaths, just the towers falling.


One of the novels I talked about on this radio show was Mao II by Don DeLillo. It envisions an age in which the novelist’s power to “alter the inner life of the culture” has been hijacked by terrorists whose “major work involves midair explosions and crumbled buildings.” Mao II was written in 1991.


If one of my relatives had died that day …

But, you see, none of them did. It felt fraudulent to me to appropriate the emotional life of those in mourning, to pretend those atrocities were something personal, to rhapsodize about national unity. What I felt was dread, a sense that my country was going to respond precisely as the terrorists intended: by becoming less human.

I visited a friend a week after the attacks, a good-hearted fellow who spent a lot of his time and money establishing a school for at-risk kids. He told me that he didn’t know exactly who’d done this to us, but that he wouldn’t mind seeing Uncle Sam drop a few hundred bombs on them. He looked down as he said this, because he knew, I think, that it was a shameful thing to say, that he was calling for other human beings to be killed, not because they had harmed him, or his family, but because they had harmed his sense of omnipotence.


The first line of the Iliad:

Sing, oh goddess, of the wrath of Peleus’ son Achilles and its devastation


There was so much talk back then about how much we were feeling. We had all these feelings. The histrionics of the daytime talk shows infiltrated prime time. A culture addicted to images of artificial violence had finally gotten a jolt the real stuff: the unscripted ruin, the blood relics. It was a snuff film writ large. People got off on it. Watching the coverage was a turn-on: the pornography of grief. There was a sense of hysterical indulgence to it all, a bullying narcissism.

Nobody stood up – in Congress, in the bright studios of our corporate media, in city hall – to make the obvious point that millions of people in other parts of the world live in a state of perpetual danger. And that the events of 9/11 might therefore require of us a greater empathy for those suffering elsewhere, might even nudge us toward a more serious consideration of our own imperial luxuries and abuses, and how these might relate to the deprivations suffered in less fortunate precincts.

That’s not what we talked about. No, we talked about our feelings. Americans were bloated with empathy in the weeks after 9/11. But something fatal was happening: as a nation, we were consenting to pursue vengeance over mercy. We were deciding – with the help of all that deeply feeling propaganda on our television sets – that the only human suffering that mattered was American.


The tragedy of 9/11, then, wasn’t that 2,977 people died. It was that 2,977 Americans died.


In Corsica, the social code known as vendetta required Corsicans to kill anyone who wronged the family honor. One fourth of the population of Corsica was murdered, thanks to this code, in three short decades.


Freud and others were fascinated by the concept of “infantile omnipotence.” This is what a child feels early in his life, and what he must eventually surrender, when he realizes he does not, and cannot, control the world.

There are some people, though, who can never quite accept this truth. They don’t have a strong enough sense of self to sustain the psychic injury. And thus, they resort to magical thinking, delusions of grandeur, angry projections, wild superstitions. They become, in this sense, more closely aligned with primitive cultures.

It is my belief that the enduring legacy of 9/11 resides in a permanent regression of the body politic, a narcissistic injury that we return to as a talisman of self-victimization, and which allows us to frame our sadistic urges as moral duties.

The attacks stunted our capacity to accept the awful truth of the world. This is most obvious in the ravings of demagogues. But in the end, the demagogues merely provide cover for our own quieter, more subtle abdications.


Let us return to the long view, to the benevolent celestial being who may (or may not) be looking down upon us, and ask: Has the mass murder that transpired a decade ago made us a more compassionate people? More united? Less fearful? Less paranoid?

And if not, why not?

I believe the transmission of stories has something to do with this. Watching a building collapse on television is not a story. It engages the viewer in a spectacle, not an act of moral imagination.

What of the stories we tell ourselves, and our children? What do we, as artists, as parents, as citizens and activists, ask of our leaders? What do we ask of ourselves? That we gaze backwards at a misty image of our own bruised nobility? That we look ahead to some childish rapture? What of the horrors and holocausts of our present? What of the girl, her mother? Can the heart still feel what the heart must feel?

Steve Almond's most recent book, Against Football, was a New York Times bestseller for at least three seconds. More from this author →