The e-mail had a simple enough subject line: “al-Qaida.”
It was from my cousin Karen, who also used to be my dentist. I have been, based on my government career in homeland security, the “terrorism expert” in the family.
The e-mail came last year on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks:
“Can you help? I’m a little nervous now. My daughter wants to go to NYC for the weekend. But I just saw that they think there could be a 10-year anniversary attack there, so I don’t want her to go. She says I am crazy. I said I could contact you. By the way, how are your gums? Are you flossing?”
Dental care and al-Qaida: Never before have the two been so closely linked.
But there was something illuminating in her question, something that seemed to herald a different way of thinking about Sept. 11. Terrorism no longer looms as the overwhelming, existential worry that it seemed to be in the first few years after the attacks.
For much of the American public, the terrorist attacks and the security apparatus they launched may be ever-present, but these days terrorism fears are not all-consuming.
It’s fitting then that the 11th anniversary has arrived with little of the fanfare of past commemorations.
The anniversary has become personal, acceptable to remember in ways that are appropriate to the level of grief we still feel or the commitment of friends and family to the wars still being fought.
It is true that one big reason we have been able to move on is because there has been no major attack on U.S. soil since then. Terrorists are now so scattered (or so dead) that operations have been left to easy converts and careless bombers. The threat is diminished, so it’s no surprise that the fear has, too.
But that’s not the only explanation for the low-key commemoration. There also has been an effort by Americans to reclaim Sept. 11 as their own, to give it continuing meaning while toning down the past commemorations that seemed so closely linked to the way terrorism fears were exploited politically after the attacks.
At its convention, the GOP essentially ignored Sept. 11 and the wars that were fought in its name. And for the Democrats, the Obama administration’s foreign policy has been a lot more about tidying up loose ends from the past – in Iraq, in Afghanistan and with al-Qaida – than fanning memories of Sept. 11. The death of Osama bin Laden was a rallying cry at their convention, but his ongoing relevance is questionable.
And as the politicization of the attacks fades, fear has been replaced by attitudes like my cousin’s. Her question reflected the sincere desire of citizens to get realistic information about terrorism risks so that they can weigh the threat and make the best decisions. It’s not paranoia, just an honest attempt to better understand, and take responsibility for, bewildering information that is rarely presented in a practical way.
Whether this attitude of resiliency holds if there is another major attack will have much to do with what our political leadership tells us. During World War II – on Sept. 11, 1940, coincidentally – British Prime Minister Winston Churchill urged Londoners facing the Blitz to show “composure and fortitude.” That attitude was reflected in the words of the iconic British wartime poster, “Keep calm and carry on.”
It took a long time for Americans to get there, but we’re now learning to follow that advice.