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Seven Years Later, Impact of 9/11 Still Resonates

September 11, 2008 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Seven years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a panel of writers and scholars examines the event's continuing impact on American life and on the world.
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JIM LEHRER: And now we explore the impact of 9/11 on American life with Jean Bethke Elshtain, professor of social and political ethics at the University of Chicago, John Ridley, author, award-winning director and screenwriter, Amanda Carpenter, national political reporter for Townhall.com; and Martin Espada, poet, professor of English at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.

And, Martin Espada, to you first.

How do you read the impact 9/11 has had on Americans?

MARTIN ESPADA, Poet: Well, as a poet, I would have to say that 9/11 has changed the language.

First of all, there’s the phrase 9/11 itself. It’s a big abstraction. And we who remember what happened that day have to do whatever we can to make that big abstraction as concrete as possible, so that we truly remember those who were murdered that day, so this does not turn into a memorial by rote, like so many others. And, this way, the dead can truly be honored.

There is another way, however, in which I think 9/11 changed the language. In the name of 9/11, in the name of the war on terror, phrases like weapons of mass destruction and enhanced interrogation have entered our political vocabulary.

These phrases, for me, divorce language from meaning. And, thus, they divorce action from consequence. If you are engaged in enhanced interrogation, you are not engaged in torture. And, thus, we as a society come to embrace torture in the name of security.

I think we have to do whatever we can to combat this tendency in the language. The fact is that this language is used to foster a culture of fear, so that people will, in turn, act against their own interests. And that’s why we’re now embroiled in two wars without end.

JIM LEHRER: Right. We will pick up. You have thrown out a lot of things at us here. So, we will pick up on some of those, as many as we can.

Amanda Carpenter, is it concrete to you?

AMANDA CARPENTER, Townhall.Com: Yes, it is.

I mean, living in Washington, what happened on 9/11 is in my mind every time I get on a metro bus. There’s been many times I have gotten off because I have seen what I thought might be a suspicious package, every time I’m on a crowded freeway, and I see an abandoned van that might look suspicious.

And then, you know, as — I’m 25, and so, after 9/11, a lot of the young men I went to school with, my brother, joined the military because of what happened. And I — it seems like I find out every other month that there is somebody I knew very well that got hurt. I found out yesterday, someone, my neighbor had — a boy that lived down the road lost both his legs. And, so, that is something that is very real to me every single day.

9/11 in political terms

John Ridley
Author, screenwriter
Looking back seven years, I think we have changed 9/11 a lot. I think that, unfortunately, 9/11 has become politicized in so many ways, about cut-and-runners, and who is patriotic, and who is wearing a lapel pin, and things like that.

JIM LEHRER: Real to you, John Ridley?

JOHN RIDLEY, Author and Screenwriter: You know, I think that, Jim, 9/11 changed us. It certainly changed me. I was in New York that day.

But, looking back seven years, I think we have changed 9/11 a lot. I think that, unfortunately, 9/11 has become politicized in so many ways, about cut-and-runners, and who is patriotic, and who is wearing a lapel pin, and things like that.

There has also been a lot of fissures from 9/11. Unfortunately, there has never been any real closure. And I do think closure is a bit of a myth. But we never got Osama bin Laden. As you mentioned earlier, this is the deadliest year in Afghanistan, when we thought we had won that war. Certainly, Iraq is not finished.

And, so, the things that have taken over from 9/11 are things like Abu Ghraib and Gitmo and the Patriot Act, and even Walter Reid, and what that means to the troops coming home. So, we changed for a while. I think that, in a lot of ways, it made us a better person. But we have taken 9/11 and, in a lot of ways, we have tried to shape that moment to fit our perspective of what patriotism should be.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Jean Elshtain?

JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN, University of Chicago: I don't agree entirely. I do agree with much of what has been said about the importance to keep it concrete and to remember the names of the victims on that day.

Even though I was at -- removed from those events -- I was in Nashville, Tennessee -- it certainly seemed very real and very concrete to me, to my grandchildren, to everyone else. So, a day like today is a day that takes on the aspects of a kind of elegy. You know, how do we remember? Who do we remember? And what obligations may this impose upon us?

And that is inevitably going to lead you to politics. I don't see how one could object entirely to an event as traumatic and horrific as that and unusual in our history becoming a subject for politics. It's like saying the Civil War shouldn't have been politicized or World War II or Korea or Vietnam. Of course it will be.

The question is, what kind of politics? What's the language in which we debate 9/11? Do we remember it as a tragedy, rather like a natural flood or an earthquake? Was it an act of war? This is simply inevitable.

And how we discuss it, how we remember it, what are the reigning symbols, are they going to forever be Abu Ghraib, I doubt that. I think there will be other symbols that will prevail over the long run, not to say that we shouldn't take account of those things. We should. But you cannot leave the politics out of it.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, Mr. Espada, you can't leave the politics out, and that the symbols will change through the years?

MARTIN ESPADA: I agree that it is inevitable that 9/11 will be addressed in political terms.

When we use a word like politicized, I think what we really mean is, will 9/11 be exploited? Will it be used cynically? Will it be used to manipulate people? And I think, to some degree, that is true, especially when we look at the continuing warmongering in the name of 9/11.

As far as the symbols changing, yes, of course, the symbols will change and continue to evolve, as we continue to tell and retell the story. And that's what we must do. We must tell the story over and over again, and make sure that the story has a human face.

Retelling the story of 9/11

Amanda Carpenter
Townhall.com
I'm really a little reluctant to talk about politics on a day like 9/11, because I think it should be preserved as a call for people to try to do things to keep the country safe, find out how you can keep your community safe.

JIM LEHRER: Telling the story -- you were a teenager, Amanda Carpenter, when this happened. And did -- and do you have to tell younger people now about 9/11? What is the story you tell when somebody younger than you says, hey, what happened?

AMANDA CARPENTER: Well, I was a sophomore in college.

JIM LEHRER: A sophomore in college.

AMANDA CARPENTER: And I found out about the news walking into class on campus. And one of my sorority sisters came out and says, turn around. Go back to your dorm. The World Trade Centers have been bombed. Classes are canceled.

And, so, we all went back into my dorm. Well, some of us didn't have TVs. And, so, we all piled in and watched the news the entire rest of the day. I had a job at the Gap later that day. My shift was canceled because...

JIM LEHRER: Clothing store?

AMANDA CARPENTER: Yes, the clothing retailer.

JIM LEHRER: Right. Right.

AMANDA CARPENTER: And the whole -- all the stores were canceled that -- were closed that day, because the one of the managers was on one of the flights.

And, so, I remember we just didn't know what to do. I mean, I was in Indiana. And, so, some of us -- a lot of us went and filled up our cars with gas, because it seemed like the right thing to do, because we thought, well, if something happens here, we have got to get out of town.

And once our cars got filled up with gas, we called the Red Cross to donate blood. What else could you do? And we felt helpless. And, so, you know, I'm really a little reluctant to talk about politics on a day like 9/11, because I think it should be preserved as a call for people to try to do things to keep the country safe, find out how you can keep your community safe. You know, go donate blood, do stuff like that.

Let's not talk about warmongering. Let's not talk about the politics of it. Let's do something that can help our communities.

JIM LEHRER: How about that, John Ridley, that this isn't a day to talk about politics and that sort of thing; it's talk to about -- well, you heard what she said.

JOHN RIDLEY: Well, you know, look, I have very young children. And I went to school with them today. And they start their school with chapel. And it was interesting to me.

You talked, Jim, about how you explain it to younger people.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

JOHN RIDLEY: You know, my kids are 5 and 8. And what they talked about was not the larger issues of 9/11, certainly 5-year-olds, but not even terrorism or violence, but simply this is a day where America comes together, and we think of America and Americans.

And I think that that obviously is admirable, both for younger children, but for us as adults, to remember that there was a day and there was a time when we were really together.

But, again, having been in Manhattan on that day, having, you know, for a time, thought that I had lost family members, and having lost people that I worked with who were first-responders, you can't help but wonder what we have done as a nation in that time. And if we cannot separate 9/11 from politics, certainly, this is a moment for adults and for leaders to look at what we have done in these last seven years.

Addressing divisions in the nation

Martin Espada
Poet
Go back to the issue of language, war is another word that has been corrupted... After 9/11, the question was posed over and over again, was this an act of war? Are we in a state of war? An act of war usually calls for a military response.

JIM LEHRER: Jean Elshtain, picking up on that...

JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: ... the idea that a lot of people thought on that moment, or that day, that this would bring the country together.

JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: And, now, but everybody seems to be saying, seven years later, we're not only not together; we're probably even more apart. How do you explain that?

JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN: Well, I think there is an explanation.

We were together for a time. But, in a vast heterogeneous country, unless you are consistently on a war footing -- you can think of the World War II years -- it's very difficult to hold this entity together, if you will. And perhaps our expectations were a bit too high about how consistently we would be able to maintain a certain level of unity.

I mean, there are deep divisions in American society. People profoundly disagree about the war on terror, among other things. And those divisions are bound to come up.

I think the -- the interesting issue here is, do we approach these differences with the presupposition of good faith on both sides? Or do we assume that some are illicitly exploiting the issue and others are addressing it fairly?

I think, inevitably, most of those charges have to do with where one fits on a partisan spectrum.

JIM LEHRER: And they were there before 9/11, you mean.

JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN: Oh, absolutely. And this is bound -- this is bound to come out.

Let me add one other thing to this, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN: And that is that, in the World War II era, citizens had a sense of what they could do to help the effort. Amanda talked about donating blood and so on.

There's a huge desire to do something. And it's very difficult, when you have got a war, you know your country is at war, and, yet, you can go about your daily life as if it not happening at all. So, what do we -- what do we do as citizens? What can be our appropriate civic response, when it a war, but it is not a total war, and so forth? It's very difficult to sort it out.

JIM LEHRER: Do agree, Mr. Espada, that, seven years later, we're still not at a -- in a -- at least in our mind-set, at least, we're not in a state of war, and that that's one of the reasons we're not reacting any differently than we are right now?

MARTIN ESPADA: I think there's some truth to that.

I think, again, to go back to the issue of language, war is another word that has been corrupted. And I remember clearly, after 9/11, the question was posed over and over again, was this an act of war? Are we in a state of war? An act of war usually calls for a military response.

And, yet, I remember something that my father used to say. My father was a community organizer -- yes, a community organizer -- in New York City in the 1960s and '70s. He would talk about the war on drugs. And he would say, you know, the war on drugs is really a war on drug addicts.

And I think we have to ask, when we talk about that state of war, war against what? War against who? This big abstraction called terror, is that where the bombs rain down?

JIM LEHRER: So -- but, to cut through it, you do not feel like we are in a state of war now, right?

MARTIN ESPADA: My government is at war.

JIM LEHRER: OK. But you don't feel...

MARTIN ESPADA: I think we need to start -- I think we need -- we do have enemies.

JIM LEHRER: All right.

MARTIN ESPADA: I also think we need to sit down and start talking to those enemies.

State of war in everyday life

Jean Bethke Elshtain
The University of Chicago
I don't think the term war has been corrupted. What we are seeing is that the term war is being debated and contested. And that doesn't mean that there is a deep corruption. And, in a democratic society, that is as it should be.

JIM LEHRER: All right.

Amanda, do you feel that we're -- do you feel that you're -- you're -- that we are at war?

AMANDA CARPENTER: I do. But I also had a brother that just recently came back from Afghanistan with a horrible, terrible disease. So, I am very closely connected to it.

But one of the reasons I think there is such a disconnect to the war, why people can go about their daily -- you know, they can go shopping and go to work and go to bed without thinking about it, is because there is a disconnect to the military.

There's -- you know, while there's many families closely connected to military members, many people are not. They are uncomfortable to talk to soldiers. They are uncomfortable to ask them what they have seen over there, because it a hard subject to talk about.

And I think people should be more willing to talk to people that have been over there, and, you know, to tell them, good job, you know, and, tell me, what was it like? Because I know it's hard for them to talk about as well. And if we could get them to engage more, you know, maybe we would have more unity in this concept.

JIM LEHRER: John Ridley, what is your feeling about -- about our being in a state of war or not, and your -- in a state of war -- in the state of mind about being in war -- at war?

JOHN RIDLEY: Well, we're obviously -- Clearly, we're at a state of war.

I wish, honestly, we were in more of a state of war. You know, the question was posed earlier about, what do we do and how do we serve? I don't think it should necessarily be left to us individually to figure that out. I think our leaders should be telling us.

We're told all the time, this is going to be a 100-year war. This is a fight for our survival. It's good against evil. Where is the shared sacrifice? I have two young boys. They're a little bit younger than military age, but I would have no problem with compulsory service. I would have no problem with taxes being raised to help, not only pay for the war, but to ensure that the soldiers who come back are adequately taken care of.

I don't think it's enough -- and, again, I don't want to overpoliticize it -- merely for our leaders to say, you know, I'm not playing golf anymore, and that is my way of showing support and sacrifice.

This is an important fight. And I think we need to feel it day in and day out. And, by the way, I think, if we all shared that sacrifice more, it would help remove some of the politics from it, because we would all understand it, and we would all have -- we would have skin in the game.

JIM LEHRER: All right.

JOHN RIDLEY: I think that's very important.

JIM LEHRER: Jean Elshtain, do you agree -- quickly -- that if we -- if we had more of a sense of shared sacrifice, we would all be much better off?

JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN: Yes, although it is very difficult to think of how we are going to get there with an -- with an all-volunteer force and so forth.

Let me just add, in conclusion, that I don't think the term war has been corrupted. What we are seeing is that the term war is being debated and contested. And that doesn't mean that there is a deep corruption. And, in a democratic society, that is as it should be.

JIM LEHRER: OK. Thank you, all four, very much.

JEAN BETHKE ELSHTAIN: Thank you.