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In Hannibal Country

Snipers, anthrax, child snatchings. They reinforce the post-9/11 sense that we now live in a world of random evil.

November 10, 2002|Neal Gabler | Neal Gabler, a senior fellow at the Norman Lear Center at USC Annenberg, is the author of "Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality."

AMAGANSETT, N.Y. — Shortly after 9/11, cultural analysts asserted that the terrorist attacks had created a new paradigm, a whole new prism through which we view our experience and imagine our future. By definition, paradigms, like Copernicus' revision of the universe or Einstein's theory of relativity, constitute a dramatic break from the way we think and live. By that standard, 9/11 seemed to qualify, though in only the narrowest sense. America was waging a new kind of war, it was forming unexpected friendships, and flying would never be the same again. Otherwise, American daily life seemed hardly affected by 9/11.

But the recent sniper attacks in Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Virginia, as well as a series of other seemingly unrelated incidents, suggest that 9/11 has, over the last year, emerged as a paradigm after all.

In ways both subtle and profound, and without most of us really being fully aware of it, 9/11 seems to have invaded our consciousness, caused us to emphasize and then reinterpret certain events, altered our perspectives, heightened our anxieties and shaken our faith. It has fundamentally changed the way we view the world, so that episodes like the sniper killings seem less aberrations in a benign universe than the cold reality of a malign one. It has encouraged us, moreover, to look for those things that underscore our vulnerability, essentially recreating the world in the image of 9/11. In a way, 9/11 has turned America into Hannibal Country -- a nation fraught with a sense of evil, danger and death.

This is not to say that what 9/11 has wrought is novel. History often flings out paradigms that first signify and then shape the national consciousness. The Great Depression created a sense of anxiety and guilt that ran through the culture. The bombing of Hiroshima introduced a nuclear age that infused the nation with fear of a holocaust. The assassination of President Kennedy convinced America that it had lost its innocence, and the war in Vietnam seemed to demonstrate that the country had lost its moral compass and thus its moral authority.

Each of these historical events did more than trigger a national mood. They rapidly assumed symbolic status that helped redefine the country. They became metaphors -- the Depression for the punishment that America had to visit upon itself for the excesses of the 1920s; the bomb for the hubris of man playing God; the Kennedy assassination for the violence that lurked within the country and betrayed its happy, placid exterior; Vietnam for the arrogance of American power.

In turn, each metaphor was subsumed psychologically and culturally, thrumming as the text or subtext in American movies, songs, novels and poems. (Just think of how Vietnam, for example, surfaced in movies as dissimilar as "Chinatown" and "McCabe and Mrs. Miller.") America became successively the Depression Nation, the Nuclear Nation, the Nation of Lost Dreams and the Nation of Misguided Ambitions. But these were not only themes that arose from the events themselves; they became frames into which much of American life was fitted. As a result of imposing the metaphor on the society, these visions of the country became self-fulfilling prophecies.

In much the same way, 9/11 appears to be an event that has become a metaphor, though it has done so much more stealthily. 9/11 incorporated several basic themes. The essential element of the attacks that day was surprise. You could be sitting at your desk one second and be immolated the next. Nothing in our experience, not even Pearl Harbor, had prepared us for this. The second element was the capriciousness of fate that the attacks illustrated. There was no explanation for why some survived and others didn't, much less an explanation of why anyone at all had to die that day. And the third element was the inexplicability of the evil that caused it. The victims were not soldiers at war; they were ordinary citizens doing their daily business. None of them had done anything to deserve their deaths. The deed could only be attributed to a force so heinous that it was beyond our comprehension.

But 9/11 didn't create fear or anxiety out of whole cloth. As Barry Glassner has analyzed it in his book "The Culture of Fear," Americans have long been subjected to fear-mongering both by the media and by various corporations, because fear can sell products. And Americans certainly had experienced the whims of fate in the reports of every airplane crash or killer hurricane or outbreak of deadly disease. We were also aware of the continuing possibility of evil long before 9/11, because we had witnessed it in a line of psychopaths from Adolf Hitler to Jeffrey Dahmer. In fact, suspicion and doubt had become embedded in the American mind.

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