9/11 is now far enough in the past that I feel more able to analyze it as history. For most of the last 18 years, my rough mental model has been something like this. The US was subject to horrific terrorist attacks in the 20th century, including the 1917 East St. Louis massacres and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, but these had little political fallout because they didn't tie in to a compelling psychological narrative for most voters and politicians. Furthermore, I had an impression that our psychology had changed with the advent of the internet and breathless "breaking news" coverage on cable TV, so that we had inculcated in ourselves a kind of fragility that hadn't been evident during crises like the Depression and World War II that actually were large-scale threats to our territory or way of life. Because of these factors, the voters, both political parties, all three branches of government, and all three post-9/11 presidents reacted to 9/11 by panicking. We got into two ruinous wars and headed down a slippery slope of violating civil liberties and destabilizing the rule of law and democratic norms.
This analysis depends on the notion that there has been a change in the national psychology, in our valuation of civil liberties, and in the way we evaluate the scale of threats and frame proportionate and effective responses. But having recently read up on John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry, I'm wondering whether similar psychological factors were acting in the two cases. This would call into question my narrative of a kind of national decay of values and resilience, coinciding with the unlocking of the gates of the mass media ca. 1990.
The analogies between Harpers Ferry and 9/11 are pretty striking. They were both extremely audacious attacks that were completely unexpected. They were both carried out by small bands of ideologues who expected to die. Although Harpers Ferry didn't trigger the Civil War all by itself, Brown's raid and widespread abolitionist support for him certainly framed the narrative of the 1860 election for Southern slave owners, helping to make it seem that the coming to power of the Republicans was in effect a violent threat against them. Harpers Ferry did tap into a compelling psychological narrative of slave rebellion (cf. Nat Turner), and it produced an immediate and disproportionately large military response from the state of Virginia, with an absurd number of troops present for Brown's execution.
To what extent does this analogy hold water, or to what extent is the psychological dynamic post-1990 actually different from that of 1859? Was Virginia's response to Brown's attack destructive of civil liberties, the rule of law, and democratic norms, or was most of that kind of damage already done before Harpers Ferry (Bleeding Kansas, banning of abolitionist speech)? Or was this pre-Brown damage arguably partly due to fears arising from an earlier violent attack, by Nat Turner?