Tom Gilson

9/11: “Full Cognitive Meltdown” – Lessons and Fallout

Not long before 9/11 I was part of a group visiting The King’s College in New York, where the school’s leaders gave each of us a coffee cup as a small memento of our time there. It’s come to have special significance for me, as it features the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center on it. Since 9/11 I’ve used it only at the office, because for my wife, that image is just too painful to have at the breakfast table. I respect her view on that, though mine differs: I use it in honor of New York and its people, including those who died there ten years ago.

We all see 9/11 differently. I visited New York to help with spiritual recovery in October of that year. Friends of mine there, trained Christian ministers, were overwhelmed. “How do you help people who are grieving something like this?” they asked. “How do you help someone recover from the sight and sound of all the jumpers at Ground Zero—some of whom might have been friends?” That’s the question that has really stuck in my mind since that trip. It wasn’t easy. Not even close—especially since these ministers were trying to get over the same kinds of things themselves; for they were New Yorkers helping New Yorkers.

In different degrees we all experienced a kind of emotional meltdown that day and for some time afterward. Some Americans also experienced what a visiting Berkeley professor described as “full cognitive meltdown.” I read this in our local paper just a few weeks after the events. (Emphasis added; you can find the the full article here.)

The campuses, once citadels of opposition to military action, generally are quiet, in part, said author and commentator David Rieff, because this generation of students is hamstrung by the “politically correct” education it has received since kindergarten. “The nice kids have been taught that all differences are to be celebrated,” said Rieff, currently a visiting professor at UC Berkeley, “and they’re in full cognitive meltdown. Their homeroom teachers and guidance counselors never told them that there are people in the world who mean them harm.”

To young people educated in this way, Rieff said, “it just doesn’t make emotional sense that cultural differences could lead to war and not greater understanding.” The events of Sept. 11 “have created a deep existential crisis for kids who grew up in a multicultural America in which no enthusiasm or cause excluded any other enthusiasm or cause and in which the very notions of tragedy and the irreconcilable were consciously rejected,” Rieff said.

What lessons have we learned from this? As I write this on Friday afternoon, New York is mounting a “major operation” to head off something like 9/11 happening again. We’re considerably more prepared for an attack than we were ten years ago (I hope). Are we any less vulnerable, though, to a “deep existential crisis” such as Rieff described? I’m not talking about emotional preparation; that’s a different and much harder matter. I’m talking about truth preparation, which ought not be such a challenge. I’m afraid we’re treating it as if it is, though.

What 9/11 taught us, among other things, is that diversity and multiculturalism aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. It is one thing to appreciate cultural differences; it is another thing to think that’s what it takes to make the world a peaceful place. We carry around on our cars the precious hope of coexistence, but only a deeply pathological historical blindness could cause anyone to think that could produce lasting peace.

Though it is a distinctly theological category, nevertheless a few non-believers came to believe in evil after 9/11. That’s progress of sorts. Unfortunately some of them, like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, have concluded that that evil is virtually synonymous with religion. They forget there is no such thing as “religion” taken monolithically, and they pay far too little to differences between religions. What one believes is of far greater import than that one believes.

If anything the fallout of 9/11 has been that we’re more afraid of truth than ever before. It was one or two dozen persons’ “true belief” that led them to attack America; therefore (it is thought) there must be something wrong with “true belief.” This too is confused: we have  come to believe truly that “true belief” only exists inside of scare quotes. There are false “true beliefs,” to be sure, and some of them have proved deadly. We can learn from those false beliefs that there are false beliefs. What we cannot learn from them is that all beliefs are false.

But we run from truth. We are terrified of thinking some person’s way of thinking or living might be truer than another. A frisson of fear goes up the spine just thinking about it. In fact, I wonder whether there’s something wrong with me for having mentioned the possibility. (There’s just a bit of self-referential irony there for you who are paying attention.)

What lessons then have we learned? Our universities, founded and preserved for the purpose of discovering and purveying truth, have panicked in its face instead. Degrees and majors are being shut down, but one most crucial course of instruction continues to mushroom: the all-important university-wide core curriculum of diversity, supported by dozens of offices and apparatuses set up across the campus to ensure that no one thinks anyone is better than anyone else, and to make sure everyone knows that if you disagree with that, you are worse than everyone else. The day will quite likely come again, though, when students of all ages will experience cognitive meltdown in light of the reality that “cultural differences could lead to war and not greater understanding.”

The pain and grief of 9/11 have moderated some, but still they remain real ten years later. The wise know that there can be such a thing as good grief—not that tragedy and death are good, certainly, but that there can nevertheless be something good coming out of the pain that follows them. Good grief finds hope grounded in truth. My mother-in-law passed away just a few months ago, not through a dramatic tragedy but because her time had come. Following her death we found hope grounded in the truth of Christ’s resurrection; our grief has been, for the most part, good.

It’s a much huger challenge when violence and tragedy strike at 9/11 scales, but the principle remains the same. We must not let something like 9/11 make us run from truth, when what we need is to run toward it all the more. One part of that truth is that evil is real. A greater part of it is that truth itself is real. The greatest part of it—a topic I can only mention now, for its full exposition must await another day—is that the truth is in Christ who defeats evil. This truth works cognitively—no meltdown required.

May God bless and protect America.


BreakPoint Column: Truth vs. “Truths”
Douglas Wilson: Simply Incoherent

Other Recommended Articles
Friends of mine who are also writing about this momentous event on its anniversary

Commenting Restored

The comment function here has been out of service, possibly causing frustration, for which I apologize. You can comment again now, and it will save and post as it should do. First-time commenters' comments will not appear, however, until approved in moderation.

8 thoughts on “9/11: “Full Cognitive Meltdown” – Lessons and Fallout

  1. Great post. I like this: “We must not let something like 9/11 make us run from truth, when what we need is to run toward it all the more. One part of that truth is that evil is real. A greater part of it is that truth itself is real.” In a sense, there were no relativists on the “day of evil” 10 years ago. The truth was undisputable: This should NOT happen. This IS evil! Thanks for writing this, Tom. I appreciate the link, too! -Mikel

  2. I have decided not to release a certain comment from moderation because it is only tangentially related to the topic of the original post: attitudes toward truth as they apply in real world situations; and because it skirts too close to the political arena, which I have excluded by policy from discussion here. I appreciate this person’s desire to join in conversation, but the topic he was bringing up does not fit here.

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