It is Sept. 1, and that means we are once again approaching the anniversary of al Qaeda’s Sept. 11, 2001, attacks against the United States. In the 10 years that have passed since the attacks, a lot has happened and much has changed in the world, but many people can still vividly recall the sense of fear, uncertainty and helplessness they felt on that September morning. Millions of people watched United Airlines flight 175 smash into the south tower of the World Trade Center on live television. A short while later they heard that another plane had struck the Pentagon. Then they watched in horror as the World Trade Center’s twin towers buckled and collapsed to the ground.
It was, by any measure, a stunning, cataclysmic scene, a kind of terrorist theater that transformed millions of television viewers into vicarious victims. Excerpts of the just-released memoir of then-Vice President Dick Cheney demonstrate that it was not just ordinary people who were affected by the attacks; America’s leaders where shocked and shaken, too. And judging from the statements of foreign citizens and leaders in the wake of 9/11, those who proclaimed, “We are all Americans,” it was also apparent that the toll on vicarious victims did not stop at the U.S. border.
One result of this vicarious victimization and the fear and helplessness it produced was that many people became fixated on the next attack and began anxiously “waiting for the other shoe to drop.” This spawned an entire industry of fear as dire warnings were propagated by the Internet of the impending “American Hiroshima” that was certain to result when al Qaeda detonated all the nuclear devices it had hidden in major U.S. cities. Chain emails were widely circulated and recirculated quoting a dubious Israeli “security expert” who promised simultaneous catastrophic terrorist attacks against a number of American cities — attacks that never materialized outside of Hollywood productions.