“Life stories do not simply reflect personality. They are personality, or more accurately, they are important parts of personality, along with other parts, like dispositional traits, goals, and values.”
It’s a humbling honor to contribute to this special effort by Homeland Security Today as we reflect back on 9/11. One important question is, “How have we changed in these past 20 years?” Many esteemed experts will approach this view by looking at factors such as security, terrorism overall, how our national security community has evolved since, etc. As my specialty is influence and all influence is narrative-centric, I chose to look at 9/11, 20 years on, through a narrative lens. Follow along for a paragraph or two to see why narrative is such an important viewpoint.
Narrative is the way human beings make meaning out of life via the lens of our own unique identity. Simply said, our identity is made up of countless layers we’ve picked up throughout our lives. The more layers we share with others, the stronger the narrative bond between those individuals. Nations typically share many layers which create a national identity. Life-defining events like 9/11 impact our identity far more than randomly occurring lesser events. Post-9/11, did America change? Did we change? Did the world change? Where do we go from here? These are critical questions to understand, particularly in regards to what is the identity of the American citizen going forward?
Our parents, grandparents, etc., were faced with similar questions after life-defining events. For my parents’ generation, the main life-defining events were WWII and the Great Depression. When I first joined the Army, it was Vietnam and all the domestic turmoil surrounding the far-off Southeast Asian war that played a big role in defining our post-Vietnam era worldview. Three decades later, 9/11 defined a whole new generation of Americans. The question is, what precisely is that definition?
Beginning with the post-WWII evolution of U.S. identity, we saw ourselves shedding much of our pre-war innocence and perhaps adding a bit too much pride and swagger – or, as many other nations would say, American arrogance. To U.S. citizens, we were justifiably proud of our role leading much of the effort to rid the world of fascism. Post-Vietnam tribulations saw to it that our “too much pride” was trimmed down significantly. Over the course of more than half a century between the beginning of the Cold War and 9/11, our identity changed not only how the world saw us, but how we saw it.
Post-Vietnam and by 1980 or so, confidence had returned and most of us gazed upon the opportunity to lead the world toward human rights, prosperity and peace. Our “white hat” was feeling like it fit again after more than a decade of identity-challenging conflict in SE Asia and the most serious domestic challenge since the Civil War. Seeing a successful conclusion to the Cold War just reaffirmed our belief that “America was back”. Despite the somewhat humorous speculation over Y2K chaos by early conspiracy theory types, most Americans were back to full swagger through the 10th of September 2001. Then an unfathomable, large-scale act of cruel terrorism on the morning of 11 September quite literally changed the world for at least the next couple of decades.
It was more than having the wind knocked out of us. In boxing terms, it was a knockdown. A staggering, disorienting and, yes, painful sucker-punch. Fear, not bravado, filled public places post 9/11. Terrorism had become like the “boogeyman,” never or rarely seen, universally feared and lurking in every shadow. We all knew what would be next but what would the identity of those going off to war be? Was it the post-WWII, boldly confident American identity or was it the post-Vietnam version, less sure of ourselves and far more gun-shy?
September 11 forced us to promptly recall that our national identity required unity in order to ward off threats. It required confidence that good ’ol “Yankee ingenuity” would produce the knowledge and tools to neuter terrorism. Unifying against an outside foe had always been part of who we are and we rekindled the stirring feelings of patriotism. The extended support we received from the world after such an evil attack also helped to dredge up the feelings of global leadership such as we’d experienced during WWII and the Cold War. The building blocks or layers of our national identity were falling back into place, as most of us assumed they would. We were in for a surprise.
“It was more than having the wind knocked out of us. In boxing terms, it was a knockdown.”
With those building blocks back in place, we went to war in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and so many other places previously unheard of by most Americans. War, though, brought quick victory and, after initial success, a generation of the soul-draining quagmire that eventually led to the tragic recent scenes from today’s Afghanistan. Playing against the backdrop of near-catastrophic divisiveness here at home, failure in war so far from home, reanimated the painful memories of 1975 Saigon, another so-called failure.
Much like the rudderless melancholy of the post-Vietnam era, the U.S. has settled into an era of doubt, divisiveness and hardship. Pandemic, civil rights and a laundry list of other issues are testing the mettle of our citizenship. Hang in there, though – America isn’t done. There are countless signs foretelling a resurgence of confidence across the board. The majority of Americans still have faith in our system of government. Even our current plague of dishonesty in media has, in my opinion, hit its zenith and we are slowly entering recovery. We survived with a better nation post the era of “yellow journalism” and now have that model to build on. The pandemic also has answers, even if a quarter of America doesn’t accept them. The chaos on the airfield in Kabul has in just a few days turned from sheer chaos to the most successful airlift in American history. Yes, another sign that we adapt and overcome as part of who we are.
When the burdens of life take their toll on individuals and nations, humans tend to block out all but what’s critical in order to survive. It’s in this protective mode that our inner identity takes over most significantly. This finally brings us back to narrative. It’s narrative that creates the “meaning map” between our ears that charts us a course when we don’t do so consciously.
For Americans, the strength of our values, system of government and optimism have sustained us throughout some of our darkest hours. All of these factors and more are on our national “meaning map”. Our confidence, strength and leadership will recover based on the main threads of our historical identity.
Yes, as a nation, we will evolve a bit too, but the changes are the evolutionary requirements to see us through the next American eras, good and bad. The boogeyman of terrorism, exacting enormous pain on our nation, has largely receded again into the shadows but is less ominous. We have learned to deal with it. Endless conflicts have also neared the end of their life cycle. The American life cycle is not coming to an end. Like tempering steel, the post-9/11 era has tempered our identity to be more circumspect, open to understanding the outside world on equal terms and even took a little bounce out of our swagger. It also tempered our resolve, which will come in handy as we transition to our next era.
The bottom line to looking at 9/11 via a narrative lens is that our new identity isn’t so far different from our 1776 version. We’re still willing to courageously do the hard work to learn and succeed. We will still continue doing things in our own unique way and we will absolutely still be as patriotic and unified as required to meet our future challenges. Although Putin and Xi have and continue to do all possible to divide us, they also proved that they really don’t understand who we are. They have never understood that post the U.S. Civil War and no matter how divided the nation over other issues, if enemies are at the gate we’ll unify and defend it.
Make no mistake, we needed this historical low. We needed it to learn. We needed it to grow and we are succeeding in our own unique way. Our next serious life event may not be terrorism like 9/11 but the same identity that saw us through the past 20 years will see us through whatever comes next. Enduring and enduring with our sacred values intact is literally who we are.