Through the looking glass

I almost didn’t notice the sign at the Maui Kakului Airport.

Positioned next to the airport security screening station, it was sported a subdued “9/11” graphic and the words “10-year anniversary.”

Has it really been 10 years? I thought, waiting impatiently to push my tote bag through the X-ray machine. It seems like we’ve always lived this way: Long airport lines and a litany of traveling dos and don’ts. A vacation headache. An existence forever divided between Then and Now.

Then the screener pulled my tote bag from the conveyor belt and started digging. Oh yeah, I’d forgotten about that bottled water.

I apologized to the screener—who generously offered to let me go back outside and finish it but sent my tote bag through the machine again. Again it was pulled for inspection. This time I felt myself tense up. What now? Contraband tweezers? Hand moisturizer in a container over the three-ounce size limit? One tabloid over the trashy magazine quota?

Eventually the screener, apparently satisfied I wasn’t trying to sneak something on the plane, let me through.

Airport hassles, of course, are just one way our lives have changed the hijacking of three airplanes on September 11, 2001.

But aside from the airport inconveniences, how else have our lives really changed? What have we learned and how has it impacted our worldview?

Initially, the aftermath of 9/11 seemed to promise change.

In the immediate days following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon we swore off irony and emerged, culturally reborn: earnest and flag-waving. We consumed, hungrily, stories of 9/11 heroes. We searched for answers; we shared stories.

We also approached new depths of conversation and as days turned to weeks and months we pondered our culture’s inherent prejudices—what did it mean to be American, to be patriotic and to be considered part of this country? Did one’s skin color or place of birth preclude a sense of loyalty to the United States? Did the ability to think critically and question philosophy and procedure mean you weren’t also a trustworthy citizen?

In the years since, we’ve hardly succeeded at answering those questions—if anything, the answers have become more complex, ever weighed down by rhetoric and politic.

That doesn’t surprise me. What does surprise me, however, is the arts and entertainment world’s response to the tragic events. If literature, music, film, TV—be it highbrow, mainstream or subversive—is supposed to serve as a mirror to society, this looking glass is murky and fragmented.

Although there’ve been a few key examples of 9/11-influenced art and pop culture—Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Denis Leary’s Rescue Me television series, Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising come to mind—the overall impact feels minimal: tiny moments in the looming shadow of history.

Then again, perhaps, 9/11’s biggest cultural influence exists online. Indeed, the attacks gave birth to the Internet Age as we know it, when people turned to the Web to share thoughts and feelings.

These days, a life not lived online doesn’t seem worth living. It’s interesting to contemplate what would have happened if we’d existed then as we do now: always immersed in Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, always immersed in a watchful medium that forces—eventually at least—truth and consequences.

Maybe 10 years isn’t enough time to accurately gauge the cultural impact of September 11, 2001; maybe 10 years is little more than a blip in time.

And maybe the Internet’s not the only mirror that matters—just the clearest one we have right now.