We said 9/11 changed us. Were we right?

A rose stands with names etched into one the tower pools at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum at dawn in New York, Sept. 11, 2015. (Damon Winter / The New York Times)

A rose stands with names etched into one the tower pools at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum at dawn in New York, Sept. 11, 2015. (Damon Winter / The New York Times)

Fourteen years later, the old images and stories still come as a bit of a shock to the system. Intellectually, we all know what happened in the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, how horrific it was to watch, how much worse it must have been to witness in person, how unspeakably terrifying it must have been to die in. But the images, the sounds, the minute-by-minute recounting of each event that day, from lower Manhattan to rural Pennsylvania to the Pentagon — it all still packs a punch half a generation later.

In some ways the aftermath has not left us, the hatred expressed that day mutating from the Taliban and al-Qaida into ISIS. In some ways we long ago put it out of mind for the other 364 days a year.

Those were my thoughts this morning, and then I read this provocative piece by Ben Domenech, publisher of The Federalist: “The Day We Forgot.”

“Fourteen years after the greatest terrorist attack on the soil of the United States, one thing is clear: virtually everything we thought about America in the days after 9/11 was wrong.

“Reading through the rhetoric and press coverage of the time as we approached this anniversary, a few threads run through nearly every piece and speech. First, that Americans are more united than they have ever been in understanding who we are and our place in the world. Second, that we are grappling with a new and different sort of enemy, but one that will be defeated with the same American attributes that have sustained us in the past. And third, that so long as we act with purpose and clarity, the world will stand with us in what we must do next – that we are not alone.

“Fourteen years later, it is astonishing the degree to which these and other lessons of that day have been forgotten, rendered moot, or cast aside.

“Shocking as it seems, America didn’t learn much at all from 9/11. It was not a particular moment of cultural or political change in American society. No generally held assumptions were overturned. No historical watershed was reached. It yielded no great art or literature. The monuments to the dead are for the most part defeatist, not expressions of resolve. What was baked into America’s future on the 10th of September, 2001 was still there on the 12th of September, 2001. The nation did not change.”

That is, of course, at odds with what I think all of us felt that day, and with what we tell ourselves when we remember to think about it. 9/11 was going to change us, and we were going to work to ensure it was for the better. Jay has a nice piece today about someone who’s tried to do just that, and there certainly are other examples. But as Domenech’s piece goes on to document the lack of change in various facets of life and politics, it’s a real question as to whether, in the big picture, we’ve been telling ourselves a lie.

As Domenech goes on to write, it’s for the better that some things about Americans haven’t changed. But my question — and it’s definitely a question — for you today is: Are we as a better nation or a worse one on Sept. 11, 2015, than we were when we woke up 14 years ago, and what did 9/11 have to do with that?

There are plenty of partisan points to be made from any viewpoint, but those are too predictable to be worth much. I’m interested in a broader view than that. I’m curious to see what y’all think.

Reader Comments 0

36 comments
RaymondJ
RaymondJ

Dusty2, nearly everything you say comes from a very tribal leaning.    There is little nuance in your writing.    You say, "Winning the war against terror became secondary to warring against the current president, George W. Bush".   But to whom, are you saying this about?   Everyone?   Really, that would be a terrible insult?  Or perhaps it is  only ALL those in your mind, whom you think are affiliated with the "other party"?   It is a false generalization.    George W. Bush is well loved by people of all different political beliefs, and was well recognized as such, even before he became president.  In terms of polling,  people don't war with the person they most want to have a beer with.       If YOU personally could get away from seeing everything and or, everyone one as either black or white, good or evil, all right or all wrong, you could make the world  a better place.  One person, one change, one word, can make the difference.  


9/11 brought Americans together in spirit.  

ateacherfirst
ateacherfirst

America has a short attention span. Yes, we remember 9/11 as an action. We have lost what it means to be a united country. We have lost the days when skin color and religion did not matter as people tried to help each other at the WTC. We have lost perspective.


Part of this is "once bitten, twice shy."  9/11 showed us we were vulnerable. That lead to fear. Fear leads to hate of those who are different.


Some of the blame goes to our so-called leaders - both liberal and conservative - who would rather grandstand then tackle key issues. 


The rest of the blame we have to shoulder. For nearly two centuries, America looked like a shiny beacon in the world - a place where anything was possible if you worked for it. A country willing to fight for the common good. Our presence brought two world wars to their preferred conclusion. That is why the world wept with us. 


Today, we don't project that beacon. Around the world,  they see violence in our streets, hear about bigotry, and find an America who has lost its way. We're all to blame for that - each and every one of us regardless of political affiliation. As horrible as 9/11 was, you wish the atmosphere of the days that follow would come back.


Those of us who saw it and understood have a brief window to recapture that feeling and teach it to the next generation. Today''s college seniors were 8 when the Towers fell.  Today's high school seniors were 3-4. Today's high school freshman and middle schoolers were barely a glimmer in someone's eye. Time is slipping by for them to understand. If we don't do something about it, in short order 9/11 will mean nothing more that JFK and Pearl Harbor due right now.



NorthAtlanta
NorthAtlanta

So below we have 1) It's America's fault it happened, and we have to figure out why they hate us.  2) We just don't like people who are different than we are.  3) It's only a fringe group of people (pretty amazing that someone would say that with what's happening in the Middle East).  4) It's Bush's fault.  Such liberal tripe.


So predictable, and so sad.


We've changed because of technology, and now the world is a smaller place where we are affected quickly by things that happen far away.  We now have to realize that our survival is more fragile than ever, and we must be more vigilant than before.  We cannot take peace for granted, and we must continue to strive to be the best country we can be in light of all the challenges that are thrust on us.  We need to watch the video footage of 9-11 so that we never forget what can happen when evil shows its face.

booful98
booful98

@NorthAtlanta Vigilant how? By infringing on the personal freedoms of American citizens? By groping people at the airport?

How is the govt more vigilant now? 


We have learned NOTHING.

LilBarryBailout
LilBarryBailout

@NorthAtlanta

Well said.  The isolationist left naively believes that if we just pull our troops out of the middle east and throw Israel to the dogs, we'll be safe.

Not with Iran having nukes, ballistic missiles, and $150 billion to improve and build them.

Visual_Cortex
Visual_Cortex

Are we as a better nation or a worse one on Sept. 11, 2015, than we were when we woke up 14 years ago, 

Arguably yes. Violent crime is down since then; while there have been efforts to unravel the already-skimpy social safety net it's still intact for our less fortunate, and we've made a lot of progress on civil rights--although some Americans of Middle Eastern ancestry might quarrel with me on that one.

and what did 9/11 have to do with that?

Pretty much nothing at all. We'd be better off had it never happened, of course; had we not spent trillions on Excellent Overseas Adventures we might've had more Nice Things for ourselves. But given the glacial pace of American legislative politics, probably not a whole lot of them


LilBarryBailout
LilBarryBailout

@Visual_Cortex

Our "skimpy social safety net" spends about two-thirds of our $4 trillion budget, and that's just the federal portion.

You're certainly free to kick in more if you wish.  I can give you the names of some worthy charities.

Dusty2
Dusty2

I think that 9/11 disrupted our many faceted harmony of politics that we had here.  We discussed, argued, and presented our efforts on politics but we always came back to the premise of "oneness" in American efforts.  We lost that. Politics were disrupted by those who would not or could not compromise or give support.  Whoever could produce the dirtiest political games became the winners.  Winning the war against terror became secondary to warring against the current president, George W. Bush. .


The game became the terrible routine of the dirtiest politics imaginable.  Daily in the news, families were attacked by insinuating words,  reputations were deliberately destroyed without any truth to them.  Minor infractions of history were treated as treasonous. Legal suits without grounds were filed to cause bankruptcy. Property was bought to establish spying or disruption.  Every sort of communication was used to destroy, not our enemies, but the leaders of our country.  It brought a heavy loss of freedom and togetherness, not by the war that followed, but the terrible insurgence of those at home.  Such wounds of disharmony and lies  wounded the psyche of this country, leaving it heaving in the distress brought upon it by Americans themselves.


Americans  then elected a president from the citizens who had proclaimed everything was wrong here.  We now have the shock of finding that he does not do the will of the people but his will only or that of his political party. We have "progressed" into greater American debt, a slower growth in the economy, illegal aliens stronger than the legal, armed forces decreased, dependence grown  on government support,  disrespect for successful citizens who become wealthy, efforts against the police, schools bringing bad reports, healthcare unhealthy, religion and faith considered trivial with our fore fathers cited as improvident.


Unless our country has the will and the 'fiber" to survive with  the ability to treat all  citizens as human not political persons, and  newspapers  do not have divided sections for left and right instead of one,  we will deteriorate as our base decays.


I guess I should call it  "the loss of patriotism from patriots".  I hope that I am wrong as I have loved this country since the day I first opened my eyes.   There is still hope.  I HOPE  so.            . 

LilBarryBailout
LilBarryBailout

@Dusty2

Democrats openly rooted for our troops to lose, to be killed, and to be accused of war crimes.

They stopped being Americans.

DeborahinAthens
DeborahinAthens

We "warred" against Bush because he was so wrong every step of the way. Fifteen of the nineteen hijackers came from the Wahabi region of Saudi Arabia. Not Afghanistan. Definitely not Iraq which was run by a secular Saddam Hussein. Anyone with a brain followed the trail of lies that were thrown up to the American People as an excuse to invade a sovereign country. When the lies about Iraq could no longer be obfuscated, the Bush Administration changed the end game goal to "bringing democracy" as the reason for invading a sovereign country. Meanwhile,in the days immediately following 9/11, he helped the Bin Laden family sneak out of the U.S. In the months following 9/11, he hosted the Saudi royalty family many times...one photo has him kissing the Saudi Prince on the lips. The fact you guys didn't seem to follow the dots, and now, you seem to want to re-write history is very troubling to me. If you want to not question any illegal, perfidious thing the Bush did, but

question and block EVERYTHING Obama does, you show that you are uninformed and biased in the worst way.

RafeHollister
RafeHollister

I think we are slightly better off, because we have opened our eyes and have seen what a wonderful country we have and how horrible conditions are in most of the rest of the world.  Where do refugees and folks tired of endless poverty, deprivation, crime, and war try to get to--  America or as a second choice Canada or Europe or another free country.   Our largess has consequences.  No one wants to go to Cuba, even with their allegedly great healthcare system, and Cuba wouldn't let them in if they did.


The question is can we afford to take in these folks continuously.  China calls for us to take more refugees and we listen, while China takes in none.  The blame America first folks are quick to point out the China's infrastructure is better than ours, without offering any qualifications.  Russia and Japan are just excluded from any responsibility, but the West volunteers to absorb these displaced folks.  So, the next time you think about complaining about how America is not in as good a shape in some area as another country, think back to all the humanitarian things we do and how selfishly they operate..  

straker
straker

Logical - "take away more of your rights"


Please list the rights you have lost since 9/11.

LilBarryBailout
LilBarryBailout

@straker

Leftists stopped caring about losing their rights and the Constitution being shredded 6.5 years ago.

Now they cheerlead for repealing the First and Second Amendments.

And not that it had anything to do with 9/11, but we lost the right to choose our own health insurance.

Recon2/3
Recon2/3

As a nation of people I don't believe we're any better or any worse now than before 9-11-01. The horror America witnessed on that day did bring the nation together but the solidarity didn't last very long. It's difficult to avoid the political component as it has played a huge role, but in keeping with our hosts request I'll avoid discussing it in depth. Americans have little tolerance for long drawn out military conflicts and we should have understood that fact a long time ago during the long Vietnam war. Fourteen years of war with very little accomplishment and worse yet no evidence that there's any real plan for victory has taken a toll on our military and has pretty much caused America to once again become apathetic. American apathy toward the dangerous world we're living in today and in the foreseeable future is in my mind extremely concerning but it has happened before in our history.

LogicalDude
LogicalDude

What stayed the same: 

People. 

Government said "we're going to war, but you just keep buying stuff and living like nothing happened" so Americans really didn't change much.  If there was a significant war tax to pay for war, then perhaps there would have been a different sentiment to war that followed. 

What changed: 

Government. 

We're going to go ahead and take away more of your rights in order to "protect" you. Okay? Thanks! We'll take more freedoms later as we see fit. 


Other things: 

A certain segment of the population became more anti-Islamic after 9/11, because they didn't hear the message that these attackers were on the fringe, that they were denounced by mainstream Muslims, or because they just wanted another reason to dislike someone else to make themselves feel better.  

Aquagirl
Aquagirl

@LogicalDude You hit the base of the matter, there was no draft to augment the military, no war tax, the biggest sacrifice most people have made is getting their junk grabbed by the TSA. Oh, and the massive effort involved to slap a yellow ribbon on their SUV.

JeffreyEav
JeffreyEav

I think we are worse off. If we could go back to 14 years after Pearl Harbor we would see how much worse off we are. I believe we were probably more united 14 years after Pearl Hsrbor than we are now. My biggest fear is if something like this happens again we would shift to blame so fast that it would tear the country apart.

Visual_Cortex
Visual_Cortex

@JeffreyEav

 I believe we were probably more united 14 years after Pearl Hsrbor than we are now

in 1955? A year after Brown vs. Board of Ed?

Kinda doubt that.

straker
straker

"in understanding who we are and our place in the world"


We are one nation out of a great many.


We are NOT God's gift to humanity and it is not our place to save everyone in trouble in other parts of the world.


Middle-East problems are NOT always ours to solve.


We do NOT need any more useless involvements in Middle-East wars.


Now, we must break the grip Big Business and The-Military-Industrial-Complex has on our politicians or it will just be more of the same in useless sacrifices of our blood and treasure.

M H Smith
M H Smith

@straker 

 "We are NOT God's gift to humanity and it is not our place to save everyone in trouble in other parts of the world."

Yeah but who does the world's humanity beckon when serious trouble erupts? When GOD seems to be nowhere around? When people are starving, dying of some unknown killer illness or genocides involving the likely use of chemical weapons against humanity? 

I don't disagree with a great deal in the content of what you brought up . However, right behind the pleas and cries to GOD for the gift of mercy to help those in despair are the cries and pleas  saying 

"WHERE IS AMERICA"?! WHY DOESN'T THE U.S. DO SOMETHING?!


President Obama's finest hour was when he said these words in response to one of the many opportune occasions the U.S. has rendered humanitarian  aid before the request was formally made, "it is who we are and it is what we do" as Americans. 


How America reacted after Pearl Harbor, after 911 in coming together explains the inherent ability of Americans to right themselves as a nation no matter what challenge besets us whether from within or without: "It is who we are and it is what we do".


booful98
booful98

@M H Smith @straker Maybe. But one thing is to offer humanitarian aid (which we do and it's great) and another one is to expect to own the world because of it. We had not right to enter into two unwinnable wars. We have no right to tell other sovereign countries how to govern themselves. 

And we have no right to exploit the fear of the "other" to manipulate our people into giving away their freedoms. 

I am a FIRM believer that nothing that the govt does now could effectively thwart another terrorist attack. Another 9/11 can easily happen because none of the methods implemented actually work. All it is doing is infringing into our personal freedoms.

JFMcNamara
JFMcNamara

The lesson that we should have learned was that we should take a hard look at America and understand why we were attacked. The result was that we doubled down and lost more.

Attacking Afghanistan was pure and right, but attacking Iraq was doubling down on what got us attacked in the first place. It's not purpose and clarity why the world rallied, but the fact that we had a just cause. As soon as our cause was no longer just, we were abandoned.

As much as you guy's hate Obama's foreign policy, it is exactly what 9/11 should have taught us. The world doesn't want us to come to their homes and bully them. They want help when they ask, but otherwise they want us to leave them alone.

For a lot of the world, they celebrated 9/11 because Al Qaeda was David and we were Goliath who imposed our will on everyone. Al Qaeda is clearly a horrible organization, but anyone with empathy realized at that point that we may not be well liked. Instead of understanding why, we went into scared bully mode and made things much, much worse.

LilBarryBailout
LilBarryBailout

@JFMcNamara

So you blame Bill Clinton?  Since he had been in office for six or seven years when 9/11 was conceived and all...

JFMcNamara
JFMcNamara

@LilBarryBailout @JFMcNamara  , Yes, I do.  I blame our foreign policy and Clinton was a key part of that along with Bush and Reagan.  It's the number one reason why I don't want Hillary "Two Guns" Clinton to win.

MarkVV
MarkVV

@JFMcNamara  I agree, except for the last paragraph. It really applies mainly to one part of the world – the Middle East. There was quite an outpouring of good will for the US after 9/11 in other parts of the world, and while that received a serious blow because of GWB, it has recovered much of it already.

ateacherfirst
ateacherfirst

@LilBarryBailout @JFMcNamara 9/11 did not happen in a vacuum. The conditions that allowed it to happen were decades in the making. Despite the 1993 bombing of the WTC, Americans still believed that we were safe at home. We weren't. It was the failure to take terrorism seriously that let this happen - and Clinton was no more guilty of that than his predecessors.

booful98
booful98

@JFMcNamara We had no just cause. We just had an imbecile president hell bent on righting a personal vendetta. He couldn't stand that Hussein kicked his father's butt and was going to do whatever it took to take revenge. At the cost of trillions of American's dollars and thousands of American's lives.

Caius
Caius

My thought on 9/11, within minutes of the 2nd plane into the Towers, was that the Bush administration had wasted months and millions on the Eastern Europe anti missile system.  And being preoccupied with that system, they had ignored/missed the threat that they had been sternly warned about.

Which brings us to the question, have we learned anything?  No!  We are still targeting nations.  The enemy is not nations but a religious civil war within the largest religion on the planet; a war that ignores all national boundaries.  And what are we going to do about it?  Well, for starters, we will again focus on one nation as the Senate next week will once again hold a vote on the Iran Nuclear Deal.


History proves that neither peoples nor nations learn anything from history.

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

I would contend that the hatred that day has found its way into virtually ALL of American discourse.  So much hate and hateful talk and action among AMERICANS!  Our downfall began that day, and it has no sign of stopping. 

bu2
bu2

@Wascatlady

I don't think 9/11 had much to do with it.  There's just been a general breakdown in politeness and moral values.  The end justifies the means has become accepted by too many.  Technology has a lot to do with it.  People are on their devices more than talking or reading.  They are able to read news targeted just to people who think like them.  They are able to communicate with a community that thinks just like them.  They try to live with people who think just like them.  It allows them to vilify those who don't think like them.  Maybe we are more accepting of superficial differences like skin color, but are less accepting of that which makes each of us unique.

MarkVV
MarkVV

Both Domenech and Kyle presumed too much when they believed that everybody shared their thoughts on 9/11/2001 and in the days after.  My most important recollection from that horrible day is what Jay mentions in his piece – the realization of the loss of American sense of invulnerability to an attack on a scale smaller than an all-out war but larger than a small action of individuals. But anticipating that it would somehow change the American society –politically or culturally? Not in my recollection.

LilBarryBailout
LilBarryBailout

What I've learned since 9/11 is that it will take something much, much bigger to shake us out of our navel-gazing, Kardashian-obsessing, smartphone-hypnotizing, microagression-whining torpor.  We are fat, dumb, and lazy, and half of us only care that the government sends the check next month.

GeorgiaRedNeck
GeorgiaRedNeck

@LilBarryBailout You are only partially correct. "it will take something much, much bigger to shake us" That, I agree, is where you are correct.

foo2u
foo2u

Definitely worse, but not because of 9/11. 

It's the because of the internets and the ability to perpetrate blatant falsehoods on large segments of people instantly, and the impersonal nature of communication and society at large today.

It seems for every truth out there, a person can find 20 "facts" proving it not to be true on the interwebs. So much white noise represents beliefs and truths these days, the biggest victim being the actual truth. Before the interwebs one had to work to find the truth, and sometimes the truth was not what you expected it to be. Now, you can find exactly the truth you want out there, instantly, facts and reality be damned...