American Narcissism and 9/11
Last week on NPR's Fresh Air, journalist Charles Sennott was interviewed about the terrorist bombings in England. The London bureau chief for the Boston Globe, Sennott compared the British reaction to 7/7 with the U.S. reaction to 9/11 this way (paraphrasing slightly):
After 9/11, Americans were deeply shocked and kept asking the question, "Why do they hate us so?" In London on 7/7, the question was, "Why did this take so long?"
Allowing for a bit of over-simplification (which is inevitable whenever one generalizes like this), I remember the American reaction to 9/11 much as Sennott does. And in retrospect, it strikes me as strangely myopic.
It would have been more realistic to ask the same question the British have been asking, "Why did this take so long?" After all, it wasn't news that large swaths of the world, including many fundamentalist Muslims, were resentful of American and western policies in the Middle East and elsewhere, and the previous decade had seen a string of lesser terrorist attacks on the U.S. and its allies, including, of course, a failed attempt to destroy the World Trade Center. The only people who should have been surprised about 9/11 would be people who'd spent the past ten years focusing on nothing but TV sports and Monica Lewinsky.
Furthermore, our focus on the question "Why do they hate us so?" has driven Americans (at least as reflected in our national self-dialogue in the media) to obsess once again on our favorite topic, American exceptionalism. The "official" answer to the question "Why do they hate us so?" has become, "They hate us because we are free." Which is a remarkably preening, self-congratulatory explanation, one that requires no reflection or learning and justifies any violent action with which we choose to respond. After all, if "They hate us because we are free," then "They" must simply be evil tyrants whom we have no choice but to bomb or bludgeon into submission.
In her professional work, Mary-Jo occasionally encounters people with the personality disorder known as narcissism, which (in my admittedly crude understanding) is akin to though not identical with the lay definition of the word. A narcissist is completely self-absorbed, unable to empathize with or truly care about other people, and preoccupied with his own self-image. In order to bolster that self-image, he constantly seeks out situations in which he can bask in praise and admiration from other people. Of course, this masks a deep-rooted insecurity and conviction of unworthiness which must be defended against at all costs.
The most dangerous event in the life of such a person is a "narcissistic injury," an intolerable insult to the narcissist's inflated self-image. One common reaction to this kind of injury is to become extremely depressed or even suicidal; another is to lash out violently against others.
It's risky, of course, to apply insights from individual psychology to large groups of people. But I can't help thinking that America's self-image--again, as reflected in the self-talk we encounter daily in the media, as well as in other forms of national dialogue such as depictions of American history in classrooms and museums--smacks of narcissism. (I touched on this theme in my Independence Day post.) Our obsessively self-congratulatory (and increasingly obligatory) "patriotism" seems to require constant references to the unprecedented and unmatched "greatness," "freedom," "generosity," "goodness," and "wisdom" of the American people. We've talked ourselves into a condition where we can't imagine why someone--anyone--could possibly fail to love, admire, even worship us and our way of life. Which means that any criticism of America is not just inaccurate and illogical but virtually insane.
As a result, an event like 9/11 becomes the equivalent of an intolerable "narcissistic injury," and the only possible response is a violent one.
By comparison, the calm, stolid, business-like reaction of the British people and their leaders (to an attack that was admittedly on a smaller scale than our 9/11) seems refreshingly sane and mature. Having apparently accepted some time ago the proposition that the United Kingdom is a nation like any other, with virtues, flaws, friends, and enemies, British authorities didn't feel the need to treat an attack on their homeland as an apocalyptic call to arms. Instead, they are treating it as a matter for law enforcement (the very approach the Bush administration derides) and as a symptom of social, political, and diplomatic problems that must be dealt with intelligently and patiently, over time.
Perhaps one day we Americans can grow up to be like our overseas cousins.