I remember that Tuesday quite well, not only because it changed the course of history, but because it altered my own trajectory in a very literal way. En route from Chicago to Hartford to visit a recently-relocated, soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend, I landed in Detroit for my connecting flight, only to be notified that the second leg of my journey had been violently amputated by terrorists. The word fell repeatedly from the lips of the news anchors on the TV monitors around which many a confused traveler had gathered, staring in dumb disbelief as the planes slammed into the towers, again and again. Everyone else was talking nervously on their cell phones, trying to arrange a way to get back home, or else forge ahead, overland, to their original destination.

In any case, there would be no returning to business as usual. As the twin towers and Pentagon walls crumbled, so too did America’s illusions of safety, security, and separateness. These were the first major attacks on US continental soil, and they introduced an unfamiliar sense of vulnerability and uncertainty to the relatively insulated American psyche. Suddenly the world seemed larger and more mysterious, populated perhaps by shadowy and sinister enemies but also filled with the prayers, support, and shared anguish of millions of allies across the globe. Beneath the grief, or perhaps because of its uniting influence, there arose a brief, hopeful sense of national and international kinship in the days after the tragedy.

Due in part to the overbearing response of the Bush administration, who immediately began speaking in stark absolutes of good vs. evil, the national mood quickly changed into one of fear and indignation. America’s pride had been damaged, and the country needed to reassert its global superiority in a dramatic display of aggression. It would not rely on international courts of law, nor would it politely petition the world community for assistance. Instead its president would demand allegiance to the “war on terror” by threatening, “You’re either with us or against us.” Least of all would America seek to understand the root causes of terrorism or address the complaints of the perpetrators, which were clearly outlined in a number of videotapes that surfaced after 9-11. All of these responses would have required a kind of humility and introspection with which America, the world’s strongest ego structure, is largely unfamiliar.

Colors and Shadows

Indeed the earth-shaking events of nine years ago can best be understood by thinking of the US in terms of its unique psychological makeup, and by distilling the tri-colored essence of the American mindset. Some might point to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as the three beacons that have guided our nation from its inception, and these unalienable rights would hardly be a bad place to start (or end, for that matter). But one the big lessons of 9-11 is that bright lights cast dark shadows – shadows that need be confronted if true healing is to take place.

If we muster the courage to peer behind the veil of Life, we see its grim counterpart in the deadliest arsenal of all time, fed by a national military budget nearly as large as that of all other countries combined. Of course, US weaponry is used less for “defense” than for offensively procuring the so-called resources needed to support the American way of life, which is centered largely around consumption. This conspicuous activity has become virtually synonymous with the Pursuit of Happiness, however noble the intention of Thomas Jefferson in using this enigmatic phrase. Its object remains elusive, as indicated by America’s record rates of violent crime and incarceration, rampant use and abuse of prescription drugs and painkillers, widespread heart disease and other stress-related illnesses, epidemic obesity… As for Liberty, there is a sad irony in the fact that, partly because of their material pursuits, millions of Americans are so figuratively burdened with debt that literal imprisonment looms as a possibility.

This is to say nothing so far of the rest of the Earth community, both human and non-human, that is aversely affected by America’s complexes. With this double entendre I refer not only to the military and industry, but to the media, which empower the other two through advertising and various forms of propaganda. Considering, as an example, defense contractor GE’s ownership of NBC, CNBC, msnbc.com, Telemundo, and Bravo, we can safely speak of the military-industrial-media complex. While each of these on its own is unrivaled in terms of power and influence, together they have enabled the US to become the most dominant, defining force in human, if not geologic, history. One would be hard pressed to find a place on Earth not affected by at least one branch of this mighty American triumvirate.

The Three Poisons

Such sociopolitical analysis, heavy-handed if accurate, can only take us so far. To discern the deeper dimensions of the American psyche and its wounds, we must look through a more powerful, psychospiritual lens at the three main driving forces of the American enterprise. By doing so, we discover what the Buddha called the “three poisons” of greed, hatred, and delusion. Alternatively translated as desire, aversion, and ignorance, these poisons are said to be the root causes of suffering. Although interrelated, primary emphasis is placed on delusion, which gives rise to selfish desire and aversion. In the American model, desire manifests as consumerism and unbridled capitalism, hatred finds expression in militarism and violence, and delusion is represented by the omnipresent media.

In light of all this, it seems hardly coincidental that the attacks of September 2001 were directed at the World Trade Center (symbol of greed) and the Pentagon (symbol of hatred), and that shortly thereafter, deadly anthrax spores were sent to various East Coast media outlets (symbols of delusion). This is certainly not to suggest that such horrific violence could ever be justified, but to bring to conscious awareness what many of us knew intuitively from that first gut-wrenching moment: that the attacks were far less random than would ever be admitted by our leaders, whose primary job, it seems, is to keep the poisons pumping.

Cynical? Perhaps, but surely one of the main lessons driven home by 9-11 is that our government cannot be trusted to keep us informed and protected. The benevolent father figure is dead, a fact that even the most jingoistic American has grasped. Mistakenly, however, forlorn conservatives look backward and cling ever more tightly to our forefathers as paragons of Christian virtue (slave-owning aside) while retreating further into patriotism (“the last refuge of the scoundrel,” as Samuel Johnson called it), instead of finally accepting and fully embracing global citizenship. This is our current calling, and if 9-11 sparked even the briefest and dimmest recognition of humanity’s interdependence, then the escalating ecological crisis may well bring to light an awareness of the shared fate of all forms of life. As we have seen, unspeakable tragedy has an undeniable power to unite.

In this variation on a traditional Tibetan Bhavachakra (Wheel of Life), representations of the three poisons appear in the innermost circle. The entire wheel of cyclic existence is being held by Uncle Samsara. Image by author.