TOPICS > World

Six Months Later

March 11, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: And so the question of the day is: How has the United States changed in the six months since the attacks?

For answers and opinions, we turn to Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International; Leonard Pitts, a syndicated columnist with the Miami Herald; Jean Bethke Elshtain, professor of social and political ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School; Alvin Poussaint, professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School; and Karen Narasaki, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Legal Defense Consortium.

GWEN IFILL: Fareed Zakaria, we just heard Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, say that since 9/11, it has changed the way we think about our own vulnerability. Take off on that. What does that mean to you?

FAREED ZAKARIA: Well, I think it’s…what it means is that the most powerful nation in the world that spends more on its defenses than the next ten countries put together was still able to be attacked by 19 men using civilian planes, and I think that is the fundamental new reality we face, which is an ongoing struggle between the forces of order, if you will, and the forces of disorder, because what we can do to deal with the threat of terrorism is limited by this one problem – that every day it gets easier and easier for small groups, indeed individuals, with access to technology that is now often 40 or 50 years old to cause devastating problems. Many of these groups that we are battling are tiny – whether they’re in Yemen or Indonesia or Afghanistan – but they have the means to inflict extraordinary damage.

And I think while these trends have been growing over the last 20 or 30 years, if you look back now, you can see that, 9/11 was the kind of wake-up call that made us realize that we’re in a world where very small people can cause very big damage.

GWEN IFILL: Dr. Poussaint, how does an American deal with this kind of heightened vulnerability, this idea that all of a sudden America can be under attack in the way that Fareed Zakaria was just describing?

DR. ALVIN POUSSAINT: Well, I think what happened after 9/11 and just after it happened and it continues now is people have a heightened sense of fear and anxiety. Even though some of the acute serious tension has receded a bit, I think people still feel an undercurrent of tension when they go to an airport and they see stepped-up security, when they hear about the war in Afghanistan against al-Qaida, the loss of American troops. There’s a new tension in the country that will probably be here for a long time.

And the intense media coverage both of 9/11 and the war and terrorism around the world is keeping this at a really high, tense level I think for everyone. And I think that makes everyone more ready to accept, in fact, the war against terrorism and whatever that might mean in a given situation. But I think for some individuals, particularly those who lost loved ones during 9/11, that all of this attention on the media and tuning in to it and watching it is causing more anxiety and fear and perhaps making some of them regress or it’s a setback for them rekindling all of the same types of awful emotions, particularly if some of them are suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.

So I think that some people, not just those who lost loved ones, but all around the country perhaps should not keep their TV sets on and listen and watch too much of this, and particularly children should probably not watch too much of it, because of the anxiety and fear that it produces and just ongoing kinds of tension.

GWEN IFILL: Leonard Pitts, you have traveled around the country since 9/11. Is this an anxiety, which is an East Coast phenomenon or is this something which truly has taken root with people around the country?

LEONARD PITTS: I tend to believe wherever you go in the country we understand we’re all in this thing together, you know, it is a vast continent. It is a vast country, but I think that at a time like this and in a wake of events like this, there is almost no East or West or North or South in this country. It is all one people. We all understand ourselves to be in this together. I think it’s, you know, someone said in the immediate after math of September 11 that we are all New Yorkers now and we are all Washingtonians now. I think that pretty much sums up not just the aftermath, the immediate aftermath of September 11, but even where we stand now.

I began this day in Oklahoma City, where I spent the weekend on some business. And I was told by several people there, you know, that they felt an especial closeness to what’s going on on the East Coast because of what they themselves went through in 1995. I was told by one gentlemen that they almost wished that as a community that they could take New York and hug New York and talk to New York and tell it what it will face coming up, what’s down the road in terms of this process of grieving and of incorporating this event.

GWEN IFILL: Karen Narasaki, after September 11, this kind of unity that Leonard Pitts describes seems to suffuse everything. Is that something which you see has continued, or is there a chance that that will crumble under regular everyday pressures?

KAREN NARASAKI: Well, I actually that the picture of unity was a bit more mixed. Certainly for immigrant communities I think it helped forge an even greater bond that immigrants have felt and love for this country. They lost loved ones. Loved ones were hurt and they feared for the safety of their families and communities. Yet at the same time the government started to adopt a number of policies that were sending the message this we don’t trust you as immigrants, that we’re going to target you as immigrants and created a new wave of fear. In addition to that, as you’re aware, there was a wave of violence that struck both Arab Americans, Muslims, Indian Americans, Pakistanis and other South Asian Americans.

We just issued a report, for example, that almost 250 South Asians were attacked in the three months following the bombing. And so immigrant communities are struggling because they want to belong to this country. They love this country. But they’re wondering whether this country is really going to accept them as full Americans deserving of all the constitutional protections that other Americans enjoy.

GWEN IFILL: Were those isolated incidents, or do you think it’s a sign that the country has grown worse not better since 9/11?

KAREN NARASAKI: Well, what I like about this country is we’re very optimistic as a people. The question is whether the fear is going to overtake that. Luckily a lot of the incidents, the intensity of the incidents was really in the first three weeks after 9/11, but we’re still seeing a lot more incidents than we would normally see in all of our communities, and we’re beginning to hear reports of employment discrimination and housing discrimination and hotels and restaurants also discriminating. And we’re very concerned about that.


GWEN IFILL: Professor Elshtain, how are you seeing it from your point of view, is this six months perhaps too soon to even begin to gauge how America has changed?

JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN: Well, it’s a little early but I don’t think it’s too early. I think in fact we were obliged in the wake of 9/11 to recognize that we were a “we”, not just competing individuals, not just groups that had distinct identities, but there is something that can reasonably called an American identity. And we were then I think obliged to reflect on what that is and about the universal principles embedded in the American idea of itself, of a polity that does welcome people and accept them into citizenship, whatever their race, whatever their ethnic background, whatever their language, whatever their religious creed.

And that that sense of who we are is something that we need to cherish, and something that very much distinguishes us from those who mean to harm us, who repudiate any such idea, who, in fact, loath that idea – that idea of an openness and an inclusiveness of citizenship, and who mean to harm us because they see that idea as itself one that must be extirpated.

So I think that sense of representing something as Americans, something that’s worthy and something that is, indeed, at base, noble, is new and a new experience for many young Americans. It’s something that they hadn’t been called upon to feel about.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you something about that because right after 9/11 there were many reports of this great surge of people going back to church, reclaiming their spirituality. The most recent polls show people going away from that. Are we just going to go back to normalcy, whatever that means anymore?

JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN: Well, I think that the movement of people into their churches, into their houses of worship is very understandable in a time of such trauma. The fact that attendance at church, synagogue, mosque is back to normal levels isn’t all that surprising, but it doesn’t mean that people are unchanged by their experience of the last six months.

I think that if we look at the response to lots of the polls that have been done and the sense of civic-spiritedness, of civic purpose, the notion that I am obliged to help my neighbors, to get involved, even the whole idea of what it means to be a citizen, which was a word that had almost fallen into complete disuse as just archaic, now we have young people, those of us who are college professors have had this experience, of students coming in and saying suddenly it meant something to be a citizen and they never thought they’d hear themselves talking like that.

And they wanted to think about that some more and to reflect on it and to reflect on the fact that many of the goods that we cherish, the simple good of civic peace, of what it means to get up in the morning, to be able to go to work, to have the reasonable expectation that you’ll be able to see your children that night, that these are goods we can’t take for granted and that from time to time they may have to be defended.

GWEN IFILL: Fareed Zakaria, the global look at this. The United States has changed -instead of being accused of being totally self-involved, now it’s accused of perhaps going back there, having reached out and then reached back. What is different globally in America’s relationship with allies and enemies abroad?

FAREED ZAKARIA: Gwen, you know what, the biggest change that’s happened with 9/11, with regard to international relations is the massive mobilization of American power. American power in the 1990s was somewhat latent. You know, we were the most powerful country in the world, but we didn’t do very much with it. And we mostly used that wealth to insulate ourselves from the troubles of the world. We didn’t want to get involved in a number of trouble spots around the world.

9/11 meant we took all this latent power – economic but also political, military and in some senses even moral and ideological – and we mobilized it. And now you see this enormous gap between America and the rest of the world. And this has been the source of the trouble. I don’t think so much specific American policies, but the fact that the world sees that the Europeans see, for example, that they are really impotent compared with American might, that we can do the entire Afghan operation without NATO, even though NATO had invoked the self-defense clause for the first time in its history. When we deal with countries in Southeast Asia, they know that we could send our troops in and deal with their terrorist better than their military can. And this is going to be the great drama I think of the next 20 years.

It tends to be cast particularly by some elites in morality terms, you know, that we’re being bad and unilateralist and the Europeans are somehow virtuous. I think the reality is this is simply a massive imbalance of power. If we stay mobilized and stay focused, as I think we will, this might even grow. This may just be the beginning of a kind of new era of American hegemony.

GWEN IFILL: Leonard Pitts, you wrote a column shortly after, in fact the very day after the election, after the attacks which zipped around the Internet, in which you talked about your anger about what happened. Are you still as angry?

LEONARD PITTS: You can’t maintain that level of anger, I think, for six months without burning yourself out. But I am still as resolved, and moreover, I’m still as certain, I guess, of the resolve of this country that this will not go unpunished and these deaths will not go unavenged. I think what happened on September 11 for a lot of people is it was the first time we understood ourselves to be Americans, you know, and the first time that that word carried any weight or meant anything. I think for the long period of time before September 11 we were just sort of over here on our side of the world, and we were just sort of oblivious in many ways to the fact of that.

And now all of a sudden we have to face the reality that being American means something. It means something to those people who abhor what we stand for. It also means something to those people who look up to and idealize what we stand for. And I think what happened on September 11th, one, is that we were pulled into the realization that this means something, and two, we were pulled into the understanding that what this means is not free and that every once in a while you are called upon to make a sacrifice of money and treasure and blood to defend it.

GWEN IFILL: Dr. Poussaint, sadly we’re almost out of time so I’m going to have to ask you to be brief, but I am curious about whether you think that the United States of America has changed permanently as a result of this.

DR. ALVIN POUSSAINT: I think they’ve changed. I don’t know if it’s permanent if you’re talking about a sense of unity and a new patriotism. Is that superficial or will Americans really come together in real ways and deal with the divisiveness between racial groups, ethnic groups, the socioeconomic problems we have. Right now all of those domestic issues are on the back burner, which many people clash and struggle over now and haven’t probably changed their basic opinions since 9/11.

GWEN IFILL: Karen Narasaki, same question to you. How permanent or real is the change that we’ve been talking about?

KAREN NARASAKI: I think some of the changes are real and permanent. One of the changes, I hope, is permanent is the interest that Americans now have in what’s going on in other countries and thinking about what are the United States’ obligations and responsibilities in working with peoples from around the world. It’s a shrinking globe.

And one of the things I think will come out of it is America will realize that we have a vast resource in the fact that we have so many immigrants from so many parts of the world who could help us understand better what our relationships need to be going on into the future.

GWEN IFILL: Well, this is going to be an ongoing conversation. Ladies and gentlemen, thank you all very much.