How are Americans different today due to the events of Sept. 11, 2001?
Our initial anger in response to the attacks united us as a nation against enemies both overseas and on American soil. We watched our political leaders form the Department of Homeland Security and give law enforcement broad investigative powers that were unimaginable prior to the attacks.
We went to war in three countries, toppled Saddam Hussein and killed Osama bin Laden. We switched parties of the occupant of the White House, kicked out incumbent politicians and then replaced some of the replacements. We witnessed the country’s and the world’s economy plunge into recession and then take halting, fragile steps toward recovery.
But the events that have come to be known simply as “9-11” still cast a long and somber shadow over America — and Americans.
The JournalNews will cover the 10-year anniversary of 9-11 in depth starting Thursday and will continue each day through Monday, Sept. 12.
But we first wanted to explore the question of how Americans were changed by the events of Sept. 11, 2001 by posing the question to some with special expertise who work at institutions of higher learning and some groups.
The responses were diverse, insightful, provocative and heartfelt.
Donna M. Schlagheck — professor of political science and chairwoman of Wright State University’s Political Science Department who has taught a course examining international terrorism — said the federal Department of Homeland Security spawned in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks has had a profound impact on the country, foremost because it has done exactly what it was designed to do: protected Americans.
“Only 14 Americans have died in terrorist attacks in the 10 years since 9-11. That is an amazing number,” Schlagheck said. And it shows what federal, state and local governments can do when they work together toward a common goal, she said.
But that safety and security have come at a price, Schlagheck said: privacy and civil liberties have been eroded, and law enforcement officials today have unprecedented powers to examine emails, computer records, financial records and travel records of Americans, often without a warrant.
“The question of privacy is an important one, and we need to have a conversation about the Patriot Act and its intrusion into our lives,” Schlagheck said.
The events of Sept. 11, 2001 also marked the end of isolationist thinking for Americans who were forced to confront the reality that events happening halfway around the world could have a direct and profound impact on their lives, Schlagheck said. . The nation is still struggling to comprehend the complexity of globalization and how interconnected the U.S. is to other regions of the world, she said.
Mark Caleb Smith, director of the Center for Political Studies at Cedarville University, said 9-11 forced Americans to come to grips with their view of Islam.
And for the most part, Americans showed that they still embrace the concept of religious tolerance, Smith said. Although there were some high-profile incidents of hate crimes, those incidents were isolated, and, “We did not see mass violence against American Muslims, or any mass effort to deport American Muslims,” Smith said.
A decade later, the terrorist attacks may well have strengthened religious liberties in the U.S., Smith said. “I believe that people realize that it could be their own religious liberties that could be under attack next,” he said.
But the attacks had impact in other areas, in part because the nation has been at war essentially every day since 9-11, said Smith, whose academic expertise has included studying how politics and religion interact. Christians in particular have been forced to examine more closely what their faith demands of them during wartime. And many young Christians, having witnessed a decade of war, are embracing a more pacifist approach to wars. “I don’t think you would have seen this before 9-11,” Smith said.
Anthony Milburn, chairman of the department of humanities and associate professor of history and national security policy at Central State University, said Americans have become more savvy in international relations and global in their thinking in the last decade as a result of 9-11. And Milburn said he believes many Americans harbor some residual suspicion of those who follow the religion of Islam.
That residual suspicion has spilled over into increasingly hostile attitudes among many Americans toward illegal immigrants, Milburn said.
Like Schlagheck, Milburn has mixed thoughts on the Patriot Act and its impact on national security.
“Initially, we were willing to trade away our civil liberties for security, but the reality is patting down little old ladies in airports didn’t make us safer,” the CSU department chairman said. “And we haven’t seen any of the expanded powers of the Patriot Act rolled back. We haven’t really seen a pushback against them. I suspect they are here to stay.”
Jack Bauer, associate professor of psychology and the Roesch Chair in the Social Sciences at the University of Dayton, said Americans’ initial reaction of unity dissolved as Americans returned to their work and family lives. It was replaced by a polarization of sorts, especially on political lines, Bauer said.
Bauer — whose academic studies have focused on how people use their life stories to create a self-identity and to cultivate meaning in life — said that when struck by a tragedy of the size and scope of 9-11, people respond in one of two different ways. Some use it as an opportunity for growth — they actively seek knowledge about what caused the tragedy to they can gain a deeper understanding of the factors that led to it. Or they turn inward and focus on self-preservation and security, reading and listening only to those sources that validate and fortify their existing beliefs.
The Sept. 11 attacks will partially shape a generation, especially the generation referred to as “Millennials,” whose members tend to be more educated than previous generations and who have entered adulthood in the polarized aftermath of 9-11, Bauer said. Members of that generation will have to choose whether they perpetuate the polarization or use their knowledge to move beyond it, Bauer said.
Ismail Gula, vice president of an Islamic Society north of Butler County, said he has seen both positive and negative effects for American Muslims in the last decade. The Iraq war and the events of Sept. 11, 2001 prompted non-Muslim Americans to learn much more about Islam than ever before, and that allowed many Americans to gain a broader understanding that went beyond Hollywood stereotypes of Muslims , Gula said. And interfaith projects and other forms of collaboration among Christian, Jewish and Muslim organizations have increased significantly in the last 10 years, he said. There also are incidents of bigotry and discrimination.
“It is very rare, but we’ve had people spit on, called names, verbally assaulted,” Gula said. But there also have been letters of support and other acts of kindness since the events of 10 years ago.
“The truth is, there’s a lot of good people in this country, and there’s hope for peace. My hope is for those good people to not stay passive,” he said.
Local residents also have talked about how Americans have changed because of 9-11.
Susan Swihart of West Manchester in Preble County said Americans appreciate their safety and security more in 2011 because of the events of 2001. But she also thinks the terrorist attacks “have changed the way we look at each other. I think people are more likely to have a tendency now to judge people based on their appearance” than they did before the attacks.”
Some online readers of the Cox media Group Ohio Facebook pages picked up on that same theme.
Marc Conter commented that the last 10 years brought “record budget surpluses to record budget deficits and the largest single increase in the size of the US Government (Homeland Security) in our history. Thousands of American families have lost loved ones and thousands of others face a lifetime of disabilities. We are all different as a result.”
Rich Germann said gas prices “have never really gone down” since 9-11, and he added, “I don’t hate traditionally dressed Muslims, I just find myself preoccupied in public looking at their midsections trying to figure out which one is going around with a bomb strapped to his/her chest. (It’s) subconscious perhaps.”
Judith Vargo said she doesn’t “think people/life/a nation HAS to change dramatically because of a 9-11. It was a bad event, but it wasn’t the end of the world as we know it. We are resilient people; it’s okay for us to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, learn from the experience and go on with our lives.”