COMMENTARY: Twenty-two years ago … We changed

The terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., and the failed attack (presumably on the U.S. Capitol) that led to a downed plane in Pennsylvania, were horrible. What they were not, is unique.

America has faced foreign aggression before on its soil. We will certainly face it again as technology brings far-flung places within range of attack.

The world is a dangerous place. Technology has closed the distance between us and our enemies, and geography can no longer protect use. We know that.

In a post-9/11 world, however, it’s time to come to grips with the reality that America is a more-dangerous place as well.

We are susceptible to fear – and disinformation

In the face of fear, misinformation spreads. That we have “nothing to fear, but fear itself,” is an observation Franklin Delano Roosevelt made in 1945 – he could not have foreseen how profound that observation would become.

Today, there are still people who insist FDR knew about the attack on Pearl Harbor in advance, and did nothing to stop it in order to draw America into World War II.

People continue to believe that the moon landings were faked.

So it is no surprise that soon after the attacks on 9/11, the conspiracy theories and misinformation began to spread. Two planes couldn’t down the World Trade Center towers, debris was missing at the Pentagon, and Flight 93 was shot down by another aircraft.

But this time, the internet (then in its infancy), a long-standing mistrust of government at any level – first made popular by progressives in the 1960s, then magnified in the 1980s and beyond by conservatives like Ronald Reagan, Jerry Falwell, and Donald Trump – and the birth of “professional conspiracy theorists” like Alex Jones of InfoWars allowed this disinformation to take hold of the popular imagination in a way it had not previously in this country.

All these reasons have been explored in depth to explain how conspiracy theories arise.

The real culprit, however, aren’t the factors named above. They are merely the vehicles.

The real culprit is our growing cultural and educational illiteracy.

We have become a people not just unwilling to read, to listen, to learn, to engage in the public square; we embrace and celebrate the most uninformed of us and hold them as cultural icons.

Local fear, rampant illiteracy

We have seen this repeatedly over the past two years in Spotsylvania County, where four educationally illiterate people now yield power over professionals who are better educated, more experienced in in their fields, and better equipped to take on the challenges our children in school today face.

Such willful ignorance is not limited to Spotsylvania – though the county does seem to serve as an incubator. In Fredericksburg, debates over ADUs and Special Use Permits have neighbors turning on neighbors, with the accusation that an opponent is an “idiot” too-often slipping past the lips early in the conversation.

And in Stafford, anti-Muslim bigotry led to the county losing hundreds of thousands of dollars to settle a civil rights lawsuit the county was going to lose. All because some citizens didn’t want the Muslims burying their dead near their communities. That same bigotry flared – where else – in Spotsylvania when the local mosque tried to build a new worship center on a parcel of land immediately across from a Methodist Church.

Each of these cases are post-9/11 events. And in each of these cases, cultural and educational illiteracy, and the internet, came together in an ugly brew that damaged our communities in ways that have yet to heal.

We can’t put the technology genie back in the bottle. So information is only going to spread more rapidly.

We can, however, do something about the illiteracy.

If only we read the Quran and interacted with our growing Muslim community. Perhaps we would fear the world’s fastest-growing religion less.

If only we spent as much time probing books for their wisdom as some do tearing them apart looking for dirty words – like so many hormonally-irrational-12-year-old boys sneaking looks at Playboys on the racks at the local convenience story. Perhaps we would better appreciate the eternal struggles of the human condition, from the Epic of Gilgamesh, to the The Bluest Eye, and Sold.

If only we embraced Origen’s ancient truth that to read a text literally is the simplest, and most irresponsible, way to read. Perhaps we could rediscover the beauty and themes of the Bible and the Constitution, instead of reducing both to quotes people wield at each other like so many shuriken.

If only we embraced literacy …

Not literacy as in phonics and decoding and we can read to follow directions.

But literacy as in mining the experiences and stories of old to shape our character and sensitize our souls. Reading that requires quiet, and time, and thought – three elements we daily seem to actively try and keep at bay.

Literacy that led Ovid to write: Emollit mores nec sinit esse feros. Loosely translated, it means, learning softens our character, and prevents us from becoming cruel.

Let us not become our own enemies

We have little trouble comprehending that those beyond our borders mean us harm.

In the days and weeks after 9/11, we were told that the terrorists hate Americans because of what we have – freedom, choice, and wealth beyond what most of them could imagine.

Perhaps that assessment is right.

But that’s not the illness we need to diagnose at the moment. We need to begin to understand why we have turned our backs on literacy, and embraced the fools.

Not that we haven’t done so before – American history is rife with people mocking literacy and learning.

But never before have we had the tools in our hands to allow the foolish to flood our public discourse with raw sewage as we have today.

We’ve accepted that there are those outside who would do us harm. And we are rising up to protect the homeland.

We must accept that there are those inside our borders who would do us harm, too.

We can afford illiteracy no longer.

Image Credit: “9/11 Memorial” by Tolka Rover is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit





by Martin Davis