9/11 and America's Three Poisons
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 amputated by terrorists. That was the new buzzword, intoned mantra-like by the talking heads on the TV monitors around which many a confounded 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 acts of violence ("attacks," as they are officially called, amidst much controversy and confusion) were the deadliest ever on US continental soil, and they introduced an unfamiliar sense of vulnerability and uncertainty to the relatively insulated American psyche. To many folks, the world suddenly 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 Manichean 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 take seriously the complaints put forth by Bin Laden in the 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, I believe, by thinking of the US in terms of its unique psychological profile, 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 (I speak not of clandestine groups intent on gaining and/or maintaining power, as this topic has been explored elsewhere in detail. My interest and emphasis lie with America's collective psyche and its psychological shadow, which likewise needs to be confronted if healing is to occur).
If we take a moment 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 at least symbolically significant that the targets of September 2001 were the World Trade Center (representing greed) and the Pentagon (hatred), and that shortly thereafter, deadly anthrax spores were sent to various East Coast media outlets (delusion). This is certainly not to suggest that the perpetrators of these horrific acts, whatever their affiliations, were trying to teach America a hard lesson in dharma. Rather, I gesture toward a mysterious kind of logic in the universe that operates beneath the level of conscious awareness. The collective unconscious, as Jung called it, has a great deal to teach those who can interpret its archetypal and symbolic language. How else are we to extract anything of spiritual value from a tragedy that by all accounts was designed to keep the poisons pumping ever more strongly?
Between the official story (terrorist coup) and the counter-argument (global conspiracy), lies is a Middle Way that allows each of us to take some degree of responsibility for the events of 9-11, and to avoid projecting the whole of our shadow onto the evil Other. If indeed the three poisons have a firm grip on America's collective psyche, the question becomes: to what degree do they control our individual minds? Can we rid our own hearts of greed, hatred, and delusion? We can certainly try, and in our efforts, however humble or faltering, we honor both the living and the dead.
Image by The Marque, courtesy of Creative Commons license.