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Opinion: How 9/11 Permanently Changed Us

Biggest transformation — a growing climate of mistrust

Two New York City fire fighters look into a car while another pulls a water hose from a fire truck amid smoke and debris following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City. (Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division)
Two New York City fire fighters look into a car while another pulls a water hose from a fire truck amid smoke and debris following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City. (Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division)

The front page of The New York Times from the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, conjures up a world both familiar and distant. The lead story highlights talk of tax cuts on Capitol Hill while a major feature conveys the worries of public school officials that dress codes are being flouted: “The days when torn jeans tested the limits are now a fond memory.”

In this era before iPhones and Androids, the Times headlined a page-one article about Paula Zahn’s new CNN contract: “In a Nation of Early Risers, Morning TV Is a Hot Market.” The Times front page also brooded about continuing threats like nuclear smuggling in Asia and the depressing verities of foreign policy: “Mideast Still Roiling.”

The 16th anniversary of the day that the Twin Towers were toppled and the Pentagon attacked is a middle-distance commemoration. Enough time has passed so that a grave silence has replaced the anguished tears. Yet almost everyone over the age of 21 can recount where they were when they learned that America was suddenly at war with a shadowy enemy.

It is a telling indication of our unhealed wounds that it is almost impossible to think of a major novel, movie or dramatic TV series that has tackled 9/11 as its central theme. In contrast, popular culture during the 1950s was dominated by World War II retrospectives like the 1953 (“From Here to Eternity”) and 1957 (“The Bridge on the River Kwai”) Oscar-winning best pictures.

An easy explanation is that World War II ended with the Japanese surrender aboard the battleship USS Missouri. But the 2011 death of Osama bin Laden brought with it neither peace in Afghanistan nor a lessening of the worldwide terrorist threat.

The passage of time has made some moments that seemed minor in the post-9/11 blur glow in memory. George W. Bush visited an Islamic center on Sept. 17 and declared, “America counts millions of Muslims amongst our citizens, and Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country. … And they need to be treated with respect. In our anger and emotion, our fellow Americans must treat each other with respect.”

An inescapable cliche in the days after Sept. 11 was the refrain that Americans had to continue some ordinary aspect of life (taking airplanes, buying major appliances or entering crowded movie theaters) “ or else the terrorists will have won.”

A permanent imprint

And 16 years later, things do appear normal on the surface. We visit the dentist, get obsessed with TV series and plan our futures as if 9/11 never happened. But the fears of terrorism have left a permanent imprint on our psyches.

A revealing June Gallup Poll found that 38 percent of Americans say they are less likely to attend large events and 26 percent are less likely to enter skyscrapers because of terrorism fears. Surprisingly, according to Gallup, fewer Americans (32 percent) were skittish about going to such large gatherings in November 2001, two months after the attacks.

There is a political component to these numbers — Republicans are more fearful than Democrats by every measure.

Most dramatically, 57 percent of Republicans compared to 35 percent of Democrats say they are “very worried” or “somewhat worried” that they or a family member will be a victim of terrorism. Needless to say, Democrats are disproportionately likely to live in major cities like New York that are more obvious terrorist targets than, say, Enid, Oklahoma.

Our daily life has changed in other ways that we barely notice, but that would seem obvious to our 20th-century counterparts.

Some trade-offs

Seeing lethally armed military personnel guarding our airports and train stations is now a routine occurrence. These days, we are forced to produce our driver’s licenses several times a day — and rarely do these demands have anything to do with our ability to operate a motor vehicle. And the right to privacy, once an ingrained part of the frontier spirit, is constantly being eroded in the name of security.

These are trade-offs that most Americans would accept in return for our 16 years of freedom from a terrorist attack anything like Sept. 11. But popular consensus should not blind us to the reality that we have made decisions in the name of security that earlier generations of Americans might find hard to grasp.

Another half-forgotten change over the past 16 years is the building of a metaphorical moat between ordinary Americans and their government.

It wasn’t too long ago that security was light in most government buildings — and you could wander down corridors without an escort. While there is no easily available quantitative information (for security reasons, of course), many more government officials below the level of president and vice president now travel with a protective cordon of armed guards.

Perhaps the biggest transformation in the past 16 years is the growth of a climate of mistrust in America. Of course, there were bitter partisan differences in the 1990s. In fact, it is hard to top a Republican House voting to impeach a Democratic president.

Conspiracy theories have flourished in the 21st century in part because America was victimized in 2001 by the worst conspiracy imaginable — 19 terrorists pretending to be ordinary passengers forcibly seizing four airplanes. And faith in Washington was undermined by the government’s failure to prevent the worst attack since Pearl Harbor.

This Monday let us offer the innocent victims of 9/11 — ordinary people whose only mistake was going to work or boarding an airplane — the honor and respect that their memories deserve. At the same time, let us avoid self-congratulatory rhetoric about how America remains unchanged after the wrenching events on a sunny day in September 2001. 

Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.  

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