An Ivy League Professor's Analysis of Collective Trauma and U.S. Politics Today

Since 9/11, U.S. leaders have focused on granting physical security to Americans, which has proven insufficient to rebuild the collective narrative.


On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, homage was rendered to the lives lost and the personal traumas of the veterans and military personnel who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Much ignored, however, is the collective trauma from 9/11 — the anxiety and fear associated with an event ingrained in the collective memory of a group, even for those who were not present or born at the time of these events.

Since the initial emotional shock, Americans have grappled with the meaning of the event, and by 2008, a staggering number had yet to find one. In my view, this unsuccessful quest stripped away Americans' confidence in the fundamental tenets of their collective identity — notably their belief in America's special right to hold global power. That translated into the hyper-militarization of U.S. foreign policy, the denial of U.S. international decline and a conflicted sense of moral injury. All three symptoms have in common the compulsive search for both material and existential security which has become the backbone of American foreign and domestic politics.

No Wimps and No Wussies

The War on Terror is the most obvious expression of this need for security. The immediate post-9/11 goal was to make the U.S. inviolable by strengthening control at the borders and within. In this respect, the U.S. has a better track record than Europe when it comes to preventing homegrown terrorism and direct attacks.

Gradually, the War on Terror has also altered U.S. foreign policy. That policy is premised on the values of strength and invulnerability, which are associated with masculinity and the ability of officeholders to prove that they are not wimps or wussies. Therefore, it is no surprise that the Bush administration and subsequent presidents' response to 9/11 was aimed at restoring the position of the U.S. in the world by a show of strength that was meant to overcome the image of vulnerability caused by the attacks.

The militarization of foreign policy and the preference for unilateral actions are among the striking consequences of 9/11. Gone are the calls for surgical removal of targets. The U.S.'s goal is now to defeat the "thugs" and the "outlaws."

I see the withdrawal from Afghanistan in the summer of 2021 as not a departure from this search for security but as an acknowledgment that the threat has changed and that, in the words of Biden himself, "the United States cannot afford to remain tethered to policies creating a response to a world as it was 20 years ago. We need to meet the threats where they are today." However, based on his speech from August 31, 2021, military occupation in foreign states will probably not be used anymore as a way to ensure American security.

Political Denial

The consequences of these aggressive military and unilateral strategies have led to an unprecedented rise of anti-American sentiment, even among the usually friendly European nations. In the characteristic denial of trauma, U.S. leaders continue to hold that the American interest is the greatest in the world and that the best thing all other nations can do is to accept it, which evidently is even more anti-Americanism.

From this perspective, the Taliban's return to power has been painful because it strips away the self-congratulatory narrative that dominated the last two decades. During this time, leaders kept presenting the ways American values were bringing changes to Afghanistan. There was much talk of democracy, although not a single democratic transfer of power has taken place in Afghanistan in the last 20 years. With the Taliban back to Kabul, the emperor has no clothes: It is now evident that American values are not as popular as we think they are.

Although the majority of Americans approve of the withdrawal, they disagree on its modality, which entails leaving behind Afghans who helped the U.S. military. This disagreement hinges on one debate: Do we owe them, or is it not our fight? Similarly, according to a 2021 Pew Research Center study, 50% of American respondents are often proud and often ashamed of their country most of the time.

Moral Injury

Like trauma, moral injury — i.e, damage to one's code of ethics and values — can be experienced at the collective level. In this case, I believe moral injury stems from the widening incompatibility between American power and American ideals. The securitization and the militarization of U.S. international power have been detrimental to the narrative of liberty, democracy and progress that America uses to present itself on the international scene. There are two components to this moral injury: the loss of confidence in American political and societal values and the loss of trust in political leadership. Both trends converge on one aspect: suspicion of the state's actions. This negative perception of the state goes beyond distrust of the leaders in charge and affects Americans' confidence in their core political values. That translates to the sharp decline of trust in institutions, which is now at its lowest in American history.

This moral injury is expressed in contradictory ways. First, it is voiced through populism and white supremacy. President Trump's MAGA movement provided a simplistic framework to explain the painful situation by identifying enemies: the political establishment, the media, Muslims, etc. The movement also latched onto the archetype of masculinity at the core of the American political narrative. By contrast, other Americans have become ashamed of the political values that have been plastered all over the world.

Since 9/11, U.S. leaders have focused on granting physical security to Americans, which has proven insufficient to rebuild the collective narrative and has been further discredited by the ineffectual management of the pandemic. The only way to heal is to restore among Americans the conviction that "we are in this together." It is up to our leadership to pick up the gauntlet.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not represent the views of Newsweek's editorial staff.

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