I’ve had a post rattling around in my head for a while now, and the anniversary of 9/11 seems like apt moment to finally have a go at it.

Lizard brain

One of the most uncomfortable facets of the attacks on 9/11 is that as horrific as they were, they were also, for lack of a better word, bracing. It sounds awful to say so, but on some level everyone recognizes it. So much of our daily life is spent in a rut, plodding through workaday details. Crisis has the effect of stripping away the inessential, heightening our senses, bonding us together, and bringing about a certain transcendent clarity that is intoxicating. It’s a common effect, reported by those who have been through car wrecks, robberies, and most of all, war. War is a force that gives us meaning.

That feeling of transcendent clarity is the source of the much-discussed national, even international, unity that followed 9/11. For a while, everyone was on the same page. Petty differences faded; we were in it together. If we’re honest with ourselves, it felt good.

Since then we have descended again into the doubt and dispute. Lots of people reflect back on 9/11 and miss that sense of unity. That’s what brings someone like Stu Bykofsky to say "we need another 9/11":

If it is to be, then let it be. It will take another attack on the homeland to quell the chattering of chipmunks and to restore America’s righteous rage and singular purpose to prevail.

The "chattering of chipmunks." Disagreement, doubt, frustration. It’s a drag. Bykofsky caught crap for saying it and had to take it back, but I think the sentiment is fairly common. I hear echoes of it when enviros say that the American public won’t rally around the climate change (peak oil / biodiversity / oceans) fight until "another Katrina" happens. Indeed, responding to Bykofsky, our own Kit Stolz said: "I’m sorry, but somebody needs to say it. We need another Katrina — now."

I also hear echoes of it in the endless, numbing calls for "an end to partisan bickering." There’s even a nascent presidential campaign based entirely on "unity," with virtually no mention of policy.

I understand the impulse. I don’t count myself immune to it. I too spent those days after 9/11 infused with a sense of righteous anger and tribal connection with my fellow Americans. I yearned for something or someone that could express those feelings, direct them to some great purpose.

As we all know, that never happened. Quite the opposite: our national sense of unity was squandered in an orgy of paranoia, militarism, authoritarianism, and upward redistribution of income.

Therein lies the rub. That tingly feeling of clarity is the brain’s prefrontal cortex going quiet. It is a previous stage of evolutionary development, ruled by the amygdala, the lizard brain, a state in which everything is fight or flight, us or them. It is humanity freed of the vexations of Reason. It is a return to pre-modern virtues: heroism, strength, single-minded fortitude.

If 9/11 taught us anything, it should be that no matter how intoxicating that state may be, we should not trust it. It will not guide us wisely. When we recede, our vision also recedes. We seek out primitive battles, clear enemies. We enforce tribalisms and exclusions.

We face huge, intangible global problems today, problems of spatial and temporal scale our animal brains are not suited to grappling with. All we can do is try to work together, draw on every mind and every good idea, and seek non-zero-sum solutions. That means reasoning and arguing — yes, the chattering of chipmunks, or as I prefer to call it, democracy.

It means stumbling forward half-blind, with false starts and compromised achievements. It means hashing things out through a frustrating fog of ambiguity, with no clear right and wrong answers and no promise of victory. That’s the state humanity finds itself in. No sense wallowing in nostalgia for simpler times.