One aspect of the traditional idea of American Exceptionalism included the notion that its geography kept the US safe from foreign invasion. This was historically true for the most part.
Pearl Harbor was the singular exception, as far as I know, and it constituted an attack rather than an invasion. Although shocking to the American public, it occurred very far away, in a territory rather than a state, involved military targets, and was perpetrated by a nation at war (not with us—not yet—but at war nevertheless).
Even in World War II the logistics were such that it was not practical to invade or even to attack the US mainland, although there were some attempts at small-scale sabotage.
The post-WWII spread of nuclear weapons to the Soviet Union ushered in something quite new: a Cold War between ideological enemies armed with weapons that could destroy either nation. My generation therefore was the first one brought up with the idea that American geographic exceptionalism had effectively ended.
However, mutual assured destruction—or perhaps the relative sanity of the two nation-players—meant that despite the long duration of the Cold War and the bitterness with which it was fought in non-nuclear proxy wars such as Vietnam, the US remained uninvaded and unattacked, which may have allowed us to consider ourselves relatively invulnerable. And the fall of the Soviet Union only compounded this feeling.
That was true until 9/11, an event that had various unique characteristics. Not only was it the only attack on the mainland, it involved civilian targets, and was perpetrated by an extra-national group that had declared war on the US but had previously been seen as ineffectual, and by actors who had been living among us.
On 9/11 that group was spectacularly successful. But because of its shadowy and terrorist nature it was poorly understood by most people in this country, who had to try to play catch-up to learn what al Qaeda stood for and why it had seen fit to attack us in such a manner. This hasn’t been easy, since al Qaeda’s reasoning is both murky and seems quite different from traditional Western, state-motivated, casus belli.
That difficulty allows the various groups in the West to fill in the blanks in accord with our various positions, agendas, and philosophies. Are the terrorists rational actors, or rageful zealots? Can they be stopped by reason and/or concessions, or can they only be killed? Is this true, as well, of the states they are allied with, such as Iran? If killed, will that fact motivate more people to join this particular cult in love with death, or will it discourage the recruitment of jihadis?
There’s also a divide between those who see that in this technological age such groups do threaten us in a major way, and must be stopped, and those who consider them to be largely incompetent and easily contained.
The former group realizes that, to terrorists, American geographic exceptionalism is no more. The modern global economy and its enhanced communications and flow of material, the extraordinary number of foreigners already residing in this country with more entering all the time (both legally and illegally), and the relative ease of obtaining weapons with a destructive power that heretofore was limited to states, have ended that. 9/11 had the extra added feature of allowing us to see that extraordinary strategic creativity (for want of a better word) could allow terrorists to use ordinary devices such as airplanes as weapons of great destructive power.
As far as “invasion” goes—traditional invasion is no longer necessary to attack the US. Another way of looking at it is that an invasion has already occurred—albeit of mostly peace-loving immigrants and visitors who are intent on minding their own business. But among those millions terrorists can hide, as they did prior to 9/11, and can hatch plans to wreak various forms of destruction.
This was known as a possibility before 9/11, but was not really credited. Now instead of a hypothetical, it is a fact. One of the other myths that was exploded—along with 3,000 people—on 9/11 was that foreigners who actually have lived in this country for any length of time would come to appreciate it, or at least to like Americans well enough to lose the intense hatred that would make them capable of committing the mass murder of innocent civilians. We Americans consider ourselves to be a genial society. The persistence of the rage of the 9/11 perpetrators in the face of somewhat lengthy stays here for many of them was a shock of major proportions.
It’s been almost six years since 9/11, and those years have featured no significant organized terrorist attacks on our shores, despite our actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, actions which certainly could be considered provocative. People of different political persuasions interpret this fact in ways that stem from their own pre-existing notion of things, because the truth is that we don’t know exactly why this has been true.
Many on the Right consider the lack of post-9/11 terrorist attacks here to be a combination of two things: anti-terrorist efforts by this administration nipping such plans in the bud, as well as the knowledge of the terrorists themselves that it would be in their interests not to provoke the American public into more forcible retaliation and awareness. If the American public is somewhat of a sleeping giant right now, then let sleeping giants lie.
Many on the Left consider the lack of successful post-9/11 attacks here as evidence that the terrorists are weak and incompetent (inherently so; not from anything the Bush administration has done, of course!) and that 9/11 was a rare exception, never again to be repeated. For this reason, all announcements of the thwarting of new plots must be trivialized and/or considered to be propagandist inventions of the nefarious Bushies. But in addition, I wonder whether the attitude of the Left is somehow a remnant of the long-held idea of geographic exceptionalism; certainly the Left considers America exceptional, although ordinarily in a negative way.
And so, divided we stand. Or sleep. Whether an awakening will occur, and whether it will be a rude one, is everybody’s guess.