Renaissance Italy suffered its own “9/11” in 1526, as art historian Frederick Hartt tells it:

“. . . [B]y June 1526 [Pope] Clement’s political machinations had involved the papacy beyond rescue, and hostilities had broken out between the pope and Emperor Charles V. In September the Vatican itself and St. Peter’s were attacked and plundered by the Colonna party, and in January 1527 the pope ordered the fortification of Rome against the imperial forces. Early in the morning of May 7, 1527, began the terrible Sack that put an end to the High Renaissance, or what was left of it, in Rome. After months of unspeakable horror – looting, burning, raping, torture, murder, desecration – the pope, a prisoner in Castel Sant’Angelo since June, escaped and fled to Orvieto on December 7. This was the greatest humiliation the papacy has ever endured, and throughout Christendom statesmen, scholars, and the general populace felt it to be the judgment of God for the paganism of Medicean Rome.”

“In the contemporary sources four intertwined themes can be distinguished: a sense of deep collective guilt, a desire for punishment, a need for healing the wounds inflicted by punishment, and a longing for a restoration of order in which the individual would no longer be free to seek his own destruction.”

Hartt describes a time in which Roman and Roman Catholic voices of authority, crippled by the Sack of Rome, began a period of harsh self-criticism and bloodthirsty scape-goating, as if to remove from one’s own beaten carcass one’s own vital organs, under the delusion that the vital organs were to blame for bringing down hellfire.

San Diego anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann tells of a similar kind of self-loathing following a cultural cataclysm involving the Parsi, a community of successful merchants in 18th-19th century Bombay whose collective sense of self was given a boost by their preferred status in trading with the British conquerors of India. Meeting the British as equals at the exchange floor, the Parsi took on the customs and habits of their Western counterparts: in particular, they dressed and spoke and played like British ladies and gentlemen of the upper class, and distinguished themselves from other ethnic groups and castes in Bombay by their success and their Britishness. With the rise of the Indian National Congress, Gandhi and the “Quit India” movement, however, the Parsi found themselves on the wrong side of mass sentiment, and Parsi leaders frequently showed their ambivalence about kicking the British out of India. When the British finally left after World War II, the bottom fell out of Parsi society — the values with which they had always identified and to which they had aspired were no longer meaningful. Then, says Luhrmann, came the startling aftermath: reproductive rates and literacy among the Parsi plummeted, and in what remained of Parsi literature, there was a consistent refrain of ‘not being what we once were.’ Belonging neither to the British nor the Indian cultures, a sense of shame in being Parsi took over. When Parsis surveyed their own attributes, instead of characterizing themselves as industrious, ethical and charitable, they would inevitably begin to refer to themselves as lazy, untruthful and unreliable.

Americans and people from around the world have, for the past century, generally shared one opinion about American business: American business has been the standard against which all other business activity is measured. Americans are shrewd, entrepreneurial and innovative, and if there’s a deal to be done, the devil-may-care Americans can get there and get it done. As has often been observed, this entrepreneurial spirit is what al-Qaeda actually attempted to attack when it struck down America’s World Trade Center in September 2001.

Before 9/11, Enron was a Wall Street darling, with considerable political influence, and the fact that its executives could live like modern-day kings was something to be celebrated as a true American success tale in the tradition of a Horatio Alger story. With the destruction of an iconic mounment to American business success, it was perhaps inevitable that the American conscience would turn to an intense scrutiny of the institution underlying the symbol that had been attacked. Following severe trauma, everything we take for granted about ourselves, even the things we believe we appreciate most about ourselves, comes under intense scrutiny. Somewhere at the confluence of fear, guilt and shame, whistle-blowers are born, investigations are launched, and headlines call for severed heads. That which we once celebrated as success becomes the unconscious symbol of the decay that has made us vulnerable to attack from the outside.

This is not to say that the recently convicted Mr. Lay and Mr. Skilling were not crooks prior to 9/11, or that the Enron mess is merely some “unfortunate” side effect of a cataclysmic event in American history. Enron was, by all objective measures, a house of cards, waiting for a stray breeze to bring it down. Lay and Skilling, and countless others in American business, probably were guilty of a myriad of ethical breaches; no doubt many are still practicing their dark arts, undetected. The spring cleaning of Wall Street after 9/11 can, however, be seen as a ritualized self-mutilation of American society — one which is performed in the open air of courtrooms and cable TV — that helps us cleanse ourselves of the decadence that brought down our particular version of hellfire.