The End of Narcissism

(Deal Hudson is editor and publisher of CRISIS, America's fastest growing Catholic magazine. He is also an advisor to President Bush. You can reach Deal at

There will undoubtedly be those who complain about the lack of overt emotions in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. This complaint comes from generations softened up by the artificial paroxysms of the television talk show and radio hate speech.

The late sociologist Christopher Lasch aptly described post World War II America as a culture of self-absorbed individuals, busily contemplating their own images in the fashion of the mythological Narcissus. The preoccupation with emotional temperature-taking is the most obvious symptom of narcissism.

The leaders of this nation, thus far, have succeeded in focusing our attention on the tragedy of the victims and their families. Surprisingly, most of the media have fallen in tow. Could it be that the magnitude of this tragedy will end our navel-gazing?

In the past few years, beginning with Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, the character of the WWII generation has been extolled for its courage and aplomb. What we see in the slow-burn tonality of President Bush’s messages to the nation is a return to the emotional tonality of that “greatest” generation. The nation’s reaction to his leadership will put the present nostalgia for WWII heroes to the test: Do we extol them at an easy distance, or do we actually wish for the return of their kind?

My mother once told me that her job during WWII, while my father was flying bombers over Germany, was to live as normal a life as possible. This was her way of fighting the war. Americans are now at war, and we must fight by putting our feet on the ground every morning and approaching each day without the fear or intimidation that these terrorists died trying to instill in us.

As Pope John Paul II has said over and over, we must “be not afraid!” It is also especially important, in light of the pope's ecumenical efforts, not to demonize Muslims in general or the religion of Islam.

Since the Vietnam War, Americans have grown more out of touch, and out of sympathy, with the military traditions and institutions that have defended our country’s freedom. As a friend of mine said today, “Perhaps this tragedy will get us over our Vietnam-phobia.”

In days ahead American military personnel will be risking their lives to bring these terrorists to justice. We can only hope, indeed we must insist, that all Americans send these soldiers into battle with every encouragement and gesture of support. And when they return, it is an opportunity for this country once again to welcome their military men and women home.

Habits don’t change easily. But habits can change when the trauma is great enough. That is why I believe this country will change for the better in the wake of that terrible day.

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