Inevitably, the unity brought about by the tragedy of 9/11 proved as intense as it was fleeting. The rally around the flag was a genuine, impulsive reaction to events in a nation where patriotism is not an optional addendum to the political culture but an essential, central component of it. Having been attacked as a nation, people logically felt the need to identify as a nation.
But beyond mourning of the immediate victims’ friends and families, there was an element of narcissism to this national grief that would play out in policy and remains evident in the tone of many of today’s retrospectives. The problem, for some, was not that such a tragedy had happened but that it could have happened in America and to Americans. The ability to empathise with others who had suffered similar tragedies and the desire to prevent further such suffering proved elusive when set against the need to avenge the attacks. It was as though Americans were unique in their ability to feel pain and the deaths of civilians of other nations were worth less.
It’s a narcissism best exemplified by former vice-president Dick Cheney’s answer when asked just last week on what grounds he would object to Iran waterboarding Americans when he maintained his support for America’s right to use waterboarding. “We have obligations towards our citizens,” he said. “And we do everything to protect our citizens.”