I was a new attending physician on 9/11/2001, working at a urban hospital near downtown Detroit. The campus was surrounded by gems like the Institute of Arts and the African American History Museum, but if you dared to take a walk in nearly any direction, urban devastation was the rule. During World War II, the population of Detroit swelled to 2.5 million as we became the heart of the Arsenal of Democracy. By the end of the war, the Great Shrink began, accelerated over the years by white flight, then the flight of anyone else who could get out as the industrial base of the city collapsed.
The influx of immigrants from the South and from overseas had dropped to a trickle and the population is now barely a quarter of a million, spread out over an infrastructure built for peak war production. It’s not that the city is a vast wasteland, but buildings burning down is a daily occurrence. Most of those fires are either accidental, or set by neighbors worried about unsavory squatters. It’s the blighted building themselves, not the burning, that are the source of fear.
When I walked out of grand rounds that morning and into my office suite, I was grumbling about something or other, muttering, “I can’t believe this!” From the conference room, the choked answer came, “Oh my God, me either.” I didn’t think my scheduling complaints were all that serious. I walked into the room and saw the first tower burning.
I watched transfixed as long as I could before I had to go round, popping my head in every once in a while to catch up on the tragedy. There was speculation about whether Detroit landmarks were at risk. Some would say, “but we the largest Arab population outside the Middle East, surely ‘they’ wouldn’t attack here.” What my Syrian, Palestinian, and other Arab colleagues surely knew was that their presence had absolutely nothing to do with whether or not Detroit would be a target.
We were terrorized. For a time. My own life was going through its own little terror, distracting me from the repeated scenes of destruction and aftermath. I suspect that many Americans outside of the immediately affected areas felt the same way: at first terror, then anger and a desire for revenge, but also an overwhelming sense that the place is so damned big, and our shared values so stable (despite our internal disputes about religion and political “handedness”) that this national tragedy was essentially local.
Of course the terror continued, as we waited for new threats, and as we sent men and women overseas to fight. Many of us lost friends and family (my wife lost a friend, I have patients who lost children). We debated civil liberties, and continue to do so, and we continue to suffer from the economic impact of the decisions we’ve made since 911, but fundamentally, we haven’t changed. Our internal fights continue as they always have. Jingoistic elements simply have yet another excuse for their hate, but that’s nothing new.
The real truth about America is that we are very difficult to terrorize. I’m not sure if terrorists realize this, but this country is really, really big, and when one part is attacked, we all react, but we also are able to go about business as usual. This isn’t Israel where bombing a bus in Jerusalem can scare people off buses in other big cities (although, in the Israeli context rarely does).
External terrorists haven’t a chance at changing our society, beyond turning up the volume on our perennial disputes about civil liberties and isolationism. Really, the same goes for internal terrorism. Ultimately, American right wing terrorism—arguably ever more a threat than foreign terrorism—is doomed to fail for many of the same reasons. We are a fundamentally centrist/conservative (small ‘c’) country, and even violent perturbations aren’t going to change that.
Terrorists, both foreign and domestic, will never understand this, so will remain a threat, and as long as we remember our core, shared values, will never be an existential threat.