You are going to be asked today (chances are many times), “Where were you on 9/11?” The question serves as our cultural checkpoint, our answers a kind of shibboleth alluding to our feelings about the event itself. Though we each have different answers as to where we were and what we were doing on that terrible morning, we dwelled in common philosophical space on the days before and after.

On September 10th, anti-Americanism was not a fear for those comfortably residing inside of Fortress America. But by the morning of September 12th, any delusions that our borders circumscribed a sanctuary from terror were shattered.

By 2011, Arab and Islamic radicals had already been posing a threat for nearly three decades. Even so, though Americans perceived the growing menace, the perception came with a sense that only some Americans were in any real danger. For the vast majority of U.S. citizens, staying out of the line of fire was like avoiding gang violence. By staying out of bad neighborhoods (much of Southern and Eastern Europe, Northern Africa and the Middle East), and avoiding wearing the wrong colors (a U.S. military uniform) one could “opt out” of the entire mess.

What a blissful fantasy of false security, one in which enemies of freedom around the world targeted “Americans,” but other Americans in other places, not us and not here.

On Flight 175, the plane that smashed into the World Trade Center South Tower, the youngest passenger was two-and-a-half-year-old Christine Lee Hanson. She was flying with her parents Peter and Sue Kim Hanson for her first visit to Disneyland. Peter came from a family of Greek immigrants; Sue’s parents emigrated from Korea.

The Hanson family exemplified the sometimes ambiguous concept of “us.” Their story may differ from those of the thousands of other victims, but all of those who perished shared a common connection — they were innocents caught in a conflict not of their making. They all died on a beautiful sunny morning in two iconic American cities. Among the living, a connection was also made and a healthy fear was awakened.

In 2000, only 24 percent of Americans polled by Gallup were worried that they or a family member would be a victim of terrorism, despite the stunning pattern of attacks against Americans and our interests abroad. In October 2001, 59 percent reported having anxiety over being a victim in a terrorist attack. In the ten years intervening, the fear has receded to near pre-9/11 levels.

One would of course argue that, in fact, 59 percent of Americans were absolutely not in danger of becoming victims of terrorist violence. But our identification with the actual victims, the feeling that those poor souls were within our community, fueled the sense of personal threat but also activated our human impulse to protect those we perceive to be in our group. As we all felt threatened, so were we all unified to act against the threat.

For many young men and women, the impulse to protect their nation compelled them to enlist in the armed forces. All have given their time, many have sacrificed their lives. There is no real way to measure how much of our relative security is owed to them, but can estimate the debt to be great.

But in the 10 years since 9/11, the loss of American unity has paralleled a decline in our fear of terror. Even with shoe bombers, underwear bombers and murderous shooting rampages on military bases to think about, almost two-thirds of people do not regard terrorism as posing a threat to them personally.

Are we being slowly lulled back into a sense of false security or perhaps succumbing to the natural human reaction to prolonged danger, the impulse to minimize threats beyond our immediate control?

Certainly, fear is an exhausting mode in which to idle, but in its absence there is complacency and in complacency are the seeds of our demise. Fear, panic and terror certainly gripped the victims of 9/11, including the passengers of Flight 93. But their fear was the catalyst to a rude and fortuitous awakening in the skies over Pennsylvania. Their reactions must have terrified the hijackers, men who perceived us to be a weak nation, like a veal calf fed on the milk of a decadent society and waiting passively to be slaughtered. No one will ever know the names of those whose lives they saved on the ground; such things cannot be known. But, without question, lives were saved by their selfless deeds.

Hundreds of firefighters, police officers and other public safety personnel similarly acknowledged sacrifice of the highest order as their calling on that day. Those who lived and those who died universally acted to ensure that others could have a chance to live through an unfolding tragedy that was beyond the scope of what any had ever witnessed.

Our continued security will depend on what sort of person each American chooses to be on the road ahead. We need more heroes and fewer people who hope only for a world in which danger can be wished away as though it is a bad dream.

All Americans must be perpetually engaged in a similar reawakening, aware of the presence of a real threat and prepared to respond. At a minimum, we must pay proper respect to those heroes among us, those who put their lives on the line to ensure that the wicked do not prey upon the good.

We must hold our fear close and in check because the target of extreme violence is not a city, or a military base, or a shopping mall. The target will always be “us.”


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[photo credit: jasonepowell]