"September 11 was a wake-up call." No, it was not. It was a hellish lullaby--a brutal sedative. Five years ago, the most powerful nation on earth fell into a slumber. It became a sleepwalking giant only half aware of its surroundings and oblivious to itself. When Hermann Broch wrote The Sleepwalkers, modern Europe had just been shaken from its Biedermeier trance by the guns of August 1914, and it was about to slip into new nightmares. America's experiment with wakefulness, which began in the fall of 1989, ended with the sound of exploding planes and a shower of glass on a bright September morning. Then the lights went out.I do not recognize my country today. It walks, it talks, but its eyes are glassy and vacant. I am not one of those who blames the Bush administration for this; our government is a symptom of our condition, not its cause. Several thousand people died in the attacks of September 11, but the changes in our political atmosphere that followed bear little understandable relation to the emotions of mourning, rage, revenge, or even fear. Objectively seen, those attacks did nothing to change the balance of power in the world, as an invasion or assassination might have. The bastards got lucky; that is all. But, like a trauma victim who suddenly sees his surrounding environment as alien and hostile, the United States reacted to those events by disengaging itself from reality, internationally and domestically. Mental disengagement combined with military engagement--a recipe for disaster. As is usually the case in U.S. history, the changes in our political culture have roots in our own recent past, not in the world situation. The attacks of September 11 brought to a close an unusual period in our history--a decade of peace, prosperity, and ideological realignment that seems all but forgotten today. The events of 1989, though they took place in Europe and China, and were only superficially understood by the American public, marked an important moment in our history as well. The nerve-wracking competition with the Soviet Union and its satellite states, which had lasted 40 years, abruptly ended. Over, too, was the obscure cloud that had hung over U.S. political life since Richard Nixon's resignation in 1974 and the fall of Saigon the following year. Those ignoble events capped an awful period in our history, full of horrors large and small: assassinations, a failed war, inter-generational battles, and the collapse of grand American cities into drug-infested racial battlegrounds. Over the next decade and a half, the United States licked its wounds and began to heal. Our presidents played an important role in this process. Jimmy Carter rehumanized the highest office in the land, and Ronald Reagan restored national pride, making it possible to invoke American ideals again--selectively, sometimes hypocritically, but without irony. The biggest changes took place at the social level, though, as the youth counterculture became mainstream, feminism reshaped the family, and the economy grew, shaking off the lethargy of the 1970s oil crisis and raising almost everyone's standard of living. But it was really the election of Bill Clinton that marked the beginning of a new era in U.S. political life. A sign of his importance was how violently he was hated by the right--and, for a while, even by the left wing of his own party. His critics were veterans of two wars: the cold war with the Soviet Union and the culture wars of the 1960s. Seeing that both these wars were over, Clinton recognized that the ideologies they spawned bore only a vague relation to American reality. His hand was not terribly steady in foreign policy, but he was guided by the sense that the multipolar world America now inhabited required a new approach to the use of military force and an awareness of the kinds of "soft power"--including America's reputation, now in tatters--that lay at his disposable. But it was in domestic affairs that his genius was fully displayed. Clinton seemed to understand that the cultural revolution was a fait accompli and that American social mores regarding family, race, sexuality, and self-fulfillment had irrevocably changed. He saw that the Reagan economic revolution was a fait accompli as well, and that it complemented the cultural one. American life had become more just and socially flexible in part because it had also become more individualistic, hedonistic, and economically flexible. Clinton not only understood this new America, he embodied it. He felt as comfortable defending homosexuals in the military as he did criticizing the pathological behavior of urban youths that makes them unemployable. When it came to the vexed subject of abortion, he found words to express the growing social consensus, declaring that it should be "safe, legal, and rare." Clinton greatest legislative achievement as a Democratic president was the reform of the main American welfare program, which had created a culture of permanent dependency and social isolation in black America. Traditional Democrats were genetically predisposed to resist such reforms, and Republicans wanted simply to abolish welfare and forget about the poor. Clinton found a third way. And he played the saxophone. Even in his weaknesses and self-contradiction, Clinton was America. Which is why, in November 2000, America elected ... George W. Bush. The election was hotly contested and there are still people who believe it was stolen. But, at the time, it didn't seem much to matter, since both Bush and Vice President Al Gore had run on Clintonite platforms. Gore offered more of the same, with a stronger emphasis on environmentalism, but he lacked Clinton's personal charm. Bush had a vague trace of that charm and seemed to be a new kind of Republican. Yes, he was a churchgoer but seemed tolerant and free of the religious right's cultural pessimism. His wife was a school teacher, and he seemed concerned about education. And spoke authentically of a "compassionate conservatism" that would find ways to help the poor through church charities and volunteer organizations. His largest departure from Clintonism was in foreign policy. Clinton had learned the lessons of Vietnam, but he also felt that the United States should be committed to using its military might in ways consistent with its principles, and in areas of the world it had habitually ignored. Bush was more of an isolationist, and he had criticized America's recent involvement in peacekeeping missions, scorning the very idea of "nation-building." And, in this, he was perhaps closer to the emerging America than Clinton was--an America at peace with modern culture and modern capitalism, self-satisfied, and without large global ambitions. Then the planes struck. What happened next on the international scene is a matter of public record. What happened within the United States is less well understood abroad. To hostile foreign observers, the United States has simply reverted to type, revealing its true face as a brutal imperialist monster. From the outside, it looks like we are being driven by greed for oil, or hatred of Muslims, or blind loyalty to Israel, or contempt for the international community---we know the litany. From the inside, the last five years of U.S. history look very different. We are still a nation in shock--hardly capable of conceiving an imperial strategy, let alone pursuing it. That is why we still have no real strategy for dealing with the genuine threat of radical Islam, or for securing our cities and ports. When the decision to invade Iraq was being made, there were long, serious debates in the British House of Commons, which anyone with a satellite dish could watch on BBC. No such display could be found on U.S. television because no such debate took place in the U.S. Congress. The president was given carte blanche. And American reporters, like adolescents at play, donned military uniforms and joined the troops as "embedded" observers, gushing over the display of firepower. The nation slept. While it slept, the clock of U.S. politics turned in reverse, back to the mindset of the cold war and the culture wars of the '60s and '70s. All sorts of strange types emerged from under their rocks to exploit September 11--neoconservatives longing for a war that would restore "American greatness" through militarism, legal anarchists who started rewriting the constitution, evangelicals who sensed the opportunity to launch a counter-revolution against all the cultural changes of the last four decades. None of these groups represented more than a fraction of Americans, but, together, they found the ear of a transformed president and of his political advisers, who knew how to exploit them in return. The level of American political debate sank to a new low and is now fixed on symbols--"values," "strength," "family," "security," "life," "freedom"--that bear little relation to contemporary American reality or the world situation. The '90s were a period of political maturation in United States, but, in the face of trauma, the nation has regressed to an infantile state. That includes Bush's many critics, who peddle Vietnam-tinged fantasies of a new antiwar movement and hope to revive adversarial press of the Watergate era. A reader of U.S. newspapers can be forgiven for thinking he is living in 1973. This week will be taken up with commemorations of those who lost their lives on September 11, as it should be. But, when those ceremonies are over, we should also observe a moment of silence for the America that existed just before that September morning, and which now lies in a coma. We are destined to see that America again, if only because reality has a way of intruding into even the deepest sleep. But the wake-up will be hard. An entire nation will find itself on the floor, its knees bruised, its nose bloodied, the furniture in disarray, wondering just what the hell happened.
Mark Lilla is Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University and author, most recently, of The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West (Knopf).
This piece was originally published in the Neue Zurcher Zeitung.
By Mark Lilla