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Reality, or what passes for it

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People in general tend to think that there is only one reality and that it is the one they experience. I don’t mean “without protection in the rain I will get wet” reality, I mean “this is exactly what happened in X place at Y time” reality. And they do this not only about situations where they were present, but also about situations related by someone else whom they consider a reliable witness/reporter. Just look at how much credence people give eyewitness accounts, and how unreliable those actually are.

A lot of (many? most?) people seem to hate to admit that this is true. The idea that someone else saw/heard/experienced the same thing differently can be scary, because, in our culture at least, many people–and I think the society in general–are so locked into the idea that there is a single, “objective,” reality. (Again, not talking about “rain” but about “what happened.”) It’s scary to think that one cannot totally rely on one’s senses, and even more on one’s brain’s processing, to deliver up the truth, the facts, the reality.

I think that a lot of “this person said/that person said” cases involve no one lying, but two people who adamantly believe in their reality. I think that some (not all) cases of police brutality involve an officer who truly believed that he/she was in danger from the person, because of the police mindset and worldview. I think it’s possible that even George Zimmerman believed that the account he gave reflected reality.

Add to this “selective validation,” in which people tend to believe things that are significant to them or have some personal meaning for them, and “confirmation bias,” in which people tend to believe information that confirms their existing beliefs and disbelieve information that contradicts their existing beliefs, and it’s a wonder that any two people ever perceive the same “reality” at all.

 

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9/11

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I don’t really understand the lasting power of 9/11.

That isn’t rhetoric or exaggeration; I really don’t “get it.”

For anyone who lost a loved one, and especially for those who lost numerous family, friends, and acquaintances, yes, I get that. For those who were in New York City at that moment, of course. For those who missed being in the Towers only because of a last-minute phone call or a missed bus and so on, sure.

And if the 9/11 attack had been like, for example, Pearl Harbor, the beginning of a war that went on to personally involve almost everyone in the country, I would understand.

But it wasn’t. Yes, 3,000 people died. In the U.S., about 3,000 people die every month, every single month of every single year, in traffic accidents. Since 9/11, more than one hundred times as many people have died on our roads as in that attack. ONE HUNDRED TIMES AS MANY. We don’t take that personally; we aren’t traumatized by that. Certainly some of the deaths in traffic accidents are every bit as physically horrible as the deaths on 9/11, and I doubt that the survivors of the car-crash victims grieve one bit less than survivors of 9/11 victims.

Yes, it was the single largest terrorist attack in history. (At least for certain values of “terrorist.”) But it wasn’t the largest loss of life in a single human-caused event, even on U.S. soil; the Battle of Gettysburg, for example, killed nearly twice as many–more than 3,000 in the Union forces alone. Combatants undoubtedly took it personally, and many were traumatized for life. But civilians who didn’t lose a loved one weren’t.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, an emotional response was, if you will, reasonable. Lots of people died, and in horrible ways that were all too easy to imagine. It was a coordinated series of attacks, they took place on the U.S. mainland against some of our most iconic sites, they targeted civilians. We didn’t know what might happen next. Of course many of us were emotional.

But then the news media showed it all over and over, playing always to our emotions, never to our reason. We saw and heard from survivors, and the kin of victims. We saw the planes crashing and the towers collapsing and the bodies falling; later we heard recordings made by victims in the last moments of their lives. It all played to our emotions. So responses stayed unreasonable, and have done to this day. The events of 9/11 were shoved into our consciousness, then were kept there by unceasing media coverage. We’ve been forced to relive our helplessness over and over and over again.

Before the 2004 election, on the radio a Bush supporter said, as a reason for his supporting Bush, “I live in the 9/12 world, not the 9/10 world.”

Maybe that’s the essence of the difference: for some of us, it was the same world.

That the terrorists attacked the U.S. in spectacular fashion didn’t make it a different world; we in the U.S. were, as we had always been, part of a single world in which terrorists did what terrorists do. We gratefully took all the condolences and friendship and help that those in other countries offered, much as we had extended condolences and friendship and help in the past, when others were the victims. And we set about doing what Americans tend always to do: taking action. We started rebuilding and we started taking names and kicking ass. That was OK, because it was what we always do and what others expected of us, and they supported us. We were still in the same world we always had been. The 9/12 world and the 9/10 world were one and the same.

Most Americans had managed to ignore the real 9/10 world. The sad truth of human history is that very few humans, of all the humans in all places at all times, have had the luxury of feeling safe. The only real change that 9/11 made was that it brought some Americans who had managed to escape it back into the reality that most people in the world already faced, and that most humans have faced throughout history.

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