The Power of Story: 9/11 and the Averted Attack


By Joe Campbell
April 28th, 2008

We understand the world through story. Fables, parables, fairy tales, religious accounts, myths, campaign narratives, history. These stories contain – beyond characters, plot, and style – truths about how the world works.

The fable of the ant and the grasshopper demonstrates how hard work pays off in the end; through Little Red Riding Hood, we learn of the dangers of the forest and the world at large; with the story of Abraham and Isaac, we see demonstrated the radical nature of faith. The truths in these stories are often subtle things – allowing differing interpretations, competing lessons, contrasting understandings. But with each telling, the story offers something complete – some understanding about the world and an implied prescription or proscription.

I wrote earlier about making an “emotional argument” – about making an argument based on that “great unconscious mass of our knowledge – the subtle hints, the forgotten information, the half-remembered, the projections based on our past experience” which we have not “analyzed and understood.” To make this kind of argument is to argue using story, using narrative, using myth. Every narrative contains an unstated understanding – and this is the emotional argument. Emotional arguments in a political context often have concrete policy implications – which is why we should pay close attention to the media and to the stories told by politicians.

Drew Westen struck a related theme in writing The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation in which he tried to explain how the Democratic Party has often failed to use emotional arguments to make their case – instead trying to argue dry policy. Mr. Westen describes the methods of a winning political candidate:

They tell emotionally compelling stories about who they are and what they believe in…. They run on who they are and what they genuinely care about, and they know their constituents well enough to know where they share their values and where they don’t…. They speak at the level of principled stands. They provide emotionally compelling examples of the ways they would govern, signature issues that illustrate their principles and foster identification.

What Mr. Westen realizes is that the Democrats have been losing election for the past twenty years (despite greater popularity for most of their positions) in a large part because they have disdained the value of story, and have neglected emotional arguments in favor of policy arguments.

What any informed citizen must realize is that the stories we tell each other form the baseline by which we judge the world. Just as we indoctrinate children by reading them fairy tales, telling them religious stories, and teaching them history, so we too are shaped.

I’m going to look at one concrete example of how one story has affected recent history, and how a change in emphasis in the story greatly changes it’s message.

September 11

The popular re-telling of the story of September 11 goes like this:

19 radical Islamic terrorists hijacked four places taking advantage of the freedoms of our society and our own technology, and launched one of the most deadly attacks in American history. Our national security apparatus was unable to do its job and protect us because it was unnecessarily constrained by laws protecting terrorists and criminals. These terrorists are only the harbringer of things to come – and there are many others inspired as these men are who want to kill us and destroy our way of life and who are willing to kill themselves in order to do so. As America is such a vast nation, it is impossible to effectively prevent an attack – there are too many targets, too many people, too many weaknesses. To protect ourselves, we must go on the offense and attack our enemies abroad; at home, we must give up certain liberties for public safety and allow the federal government, the police, the FBI, the CIA, and the NSA to protect us. We need to give the federal government whatever tools are necessary to allow it to protect us – and anyone who opposes this is – in effect, if not in intention – helping the terrorists.

Told this way, the story of September 11 leads us almost inevitably to simultaneous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and increasing secrecy and expanding police powers for the government at home. This story was used by the Republican Congressional leadership to push their position regarding the wiretap bill; it was used by President George W. Bush in the 2004 election, and was even largely accepted by his Democratic opponents – though they quibbled over particular measures; this story was invoked in ads against former Senator Max Cleeland the Democrats generally in the 2002; it has been used as a justification for policies and as a political weapon.

An informed citizenry

But with a slight shift in emphasis, the story of September 11 has a different message and leads to very different policy prescriptions. It is a story of how the federal government – powerless to protect itself or the American people – was instead protect by an assorted, diverse, random selection of informed citizens.

A group of radical fundamentalist Muslim terrorists decided to attack four prominent symbols of American economic, military, and political power: the two towers of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and either the White House or Capitol Building. Americans and people around the world watched in shock and with numbed horror as smoke billowed from the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, as people jumped from the buildings, as firefighters and police officers and emergency personnel ran into the buildings, into the fire. The attack was horrifying and unexpected. We watched transfixed as dust and ash transformed Lower Manhattan into an image out of some doomsday scenario. We barely noticed as, over Pennsylvania, a group of passengers on another hijacked plane learned of what had happened in New York and Washington, D.C. Armed with this knowledge, determined to act, they alone on that day foiled a potential mass casualty attack. There were no U.S. Marshals on the plane; there were no orders from the CIA or FBI. Instead, there was a random group of people who, once they were informed of the threat, acted to eliminate it.

It wasn’t our vast military that protected us on that day; it wasn’t the federal government, wiretaps, the FBI, the police. It was a group of informed citizens acting together, in the right place at the right time – and they were able to do what the government could not.

The implication of this history is clear: the federal government cannot be everywhere. But the best defense of our way of life, of our institutions, of our government, of our people is the American people themselves – properly informed.

Stephen Flynn, who deserves the credit for bringing to my attention this particular idea of the relevance of the story of United 93 wrote in a Foreign Affairs piece:

Americans should celebrate – and ponder – the reality that the legislative and executive centers of the U.S. federal government, whose constitutional duty is to “provide for the common defense,” were themselves defended that day by one thing alone: an alert and heroic citizenry.

The story of United 93 also raises a serious question that the 9/11 Commission failed to examine: might the passengers on the other three planes have reacted, too, if they had known the hijackers’ plans? The 9/11 Commission documents that in the years leading up to the attacks on New York and Washington, a number of people inside the U.S. government had collected intelligence suggesting that terrorists were interested in using passenger airliners as weapons. But because that information was viewed as sensitive, the government never shared it with the public. What if it had been widely publicized? How would the passengers aboard the first three jets have behaved?

The next president needs to embrace the United 93 story – and consider these questions – in order to reawaken the spirit of community and volunteerism witnessed throughout the nation in the months immediately following 9/11. If U.S. history is a guide, people will respond to the call to service. They only need to be asked.

Suddenly, with a change in emphasis based on the historical record we all know, September 11 is not about terror, but about the power of an informed and active citizenry, about community and volunteerism. This is the power of story to change how we see the world, to change the terms of the political debate.

What we need today – to change our course as a nation, as a clear majority of Americans want – is a politician who can change the stories that undergird our political conversation, who can transform the story of September 11 from one of terror to one pointing us to the beginnings of a solution, who can explain why we need health care reform by telling the story of America instead of citing statistics.

You all know who I think that is.

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