Guest Entry: Stories Should Honor 9/11 Victims But Not Define Pre- and Post-9/11 Culture

Cathryn Wellner wrote to me this weekend with a response to my 9/11 blog entry. With her permission, I wanted to post her response as a comment to that entry, but my comment function seems to be malfunctioning, so Cathryn gave me permission to post her words as today’s entry. I will post my response to this piece tomorrow and in the meantime invite your thoughts.

I love the regular infusion of story culture that comes into my inbox through A Storied Career. You bring your readers insight, keen observations, inspirational examples, and more — all of which I appreciate.

So I’m hesitant to make my first response to your good work be a reflection on 9/11, but your column touched a nerve. I have been involved in storytelling since the early 1980s. I traveled as a storyteller for a decade, then turned it into a consulting career and have worked primarily with health-related groups ever since. It’s from that perspective, and as an American who’s lived outside the U.S. since 1990, that I found the essay troubling.

The division of story interest into pre- and post-9/11 would come as a surprise to generations of tellers and listeners. The art is ancient, at the core of humanity. Every great religious leader, from the dawn of time, has understood this. So have politicians, some with the good of their constituents in mind, others for less noble reasons. Advertisers, journalists, film makers, teachers, painters … the list of story makers is endless. The U.S.’s National Storytelling Association predates that horrific event by more than a generation, and it was a latecomer on the storytelling scene. So I would argue that the hunger for stories is universal, its origins lost in time, and not a result of 9/11.

But that’s not really what troubled me about your well written essay. Rather, I shudder each time the country of my birth commemorates 9/11 as a transforming event without acknowledging that the transformation has exacted a terrible price. The security industry has benefited. So has the military-industrial complex. But Americans are not not made safer by a Patriot Act that erodes civil liberties and demands concessions from other countries, nor by the war in Iraq. And the risk of a car crash or diabetes still far outweighs the threat of a terrorist attack.

Those who died or whose lives were shattered by 9/11 deserve a better memorial than the isolationism and paranoia of leaders who should have taken a moral high road instead of squandering the outpouring of sympathy and good will from around the world. And that means telling all the stories of that tragic occasion and its impact on the U.S.

Recently a CBC reporter traveled to Maine to ask Americans how they felt about the U.S.’s imposition of tighter border restrictions, requiring Canadians to show a passport when entering the U.S. Without exception, people favored the move because, after all, the 9/11 terrorists entered the U.S. from Canada.

Now there’s a story for you, though not a true one. The terrorists entered the U.S. through U.S. customs, not Canadian. But the story stands because another story is stronger, the story that America is still under threat, that all other nations — including friendly neighbors to the north — are Other and cannot really be trusted.

I’m not sure people back home are aware (or care) that America has lost ground in the eyes of the world because of the way the country responded to 9/11. Those of us who live without the buffer of being surrounded by other Americans are constantly reminded.

I love my motherland, but I weep for it and hope one day new stories will be told, stories that honor the victims of a terrible tragedy but no longer define either America or the world as pre- and post-9/11, that no longer define America or the countries outside its borders as Us and Them.

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Dr. Kathy Hansen

Kathy Hansen, PhD, is a leading proponent of deploying storytelling for career advancement. She is an author and instructor, in addition to being a career guru. More...

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