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Historians Discuss What’s Changed, What Hasn’t After 9/11

September 11, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
From Americans' collective outrage and response right following the 9/11 attacks to today's political divisions, Jeffrey Brown speaks with historians Michael Beschloss and Richard Norton Smith about what has changed -- and what hasn't -- in the United States since the 9/11 attacks.
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JIM LIVINGSTON, Baton Rouge, La.: When you go to the airport, when you go anywhere, you know security is much tighter. It’s a problem. It’s a hassle. But it’s something I think we have to go through now.

ERIC CROCKETT, Minneapolis, Minn.: We look at the tests they’re doing at the airport and stuff about security screening and you have people slipping in and back and forth through side doors, so as far as major security goes, I think we still have a lot to work on.

THOMAS HOOD, St. Louis, Mo.: I am able to go maybe from day to day without seeing all of these warning alerts or hearing all of the warning alerts. I don’t know if that means that we’re actually safer or not, but at least I’m not reminded so much of it. So therefore I tend to forget it probably, but I do feel safer.

FATIMA MARTINEZ, Wilmington, Del.: No, I don’t. And the reason is I don’t is that, I don’t think there’s a way to prevent it. I just don’t think there’s a way to prevent it. I really feel that if they wanted to come back and do something, they’ll come back and do something.

CARL CHRISTIANSEN, San Antonio, Texas: We’re now more hated and more reviled in the world than we were before 9/11, so I think we probably have more enemies now, but I think that at the same time we’re a little better equipped to deal with the enemies that we have and that we’ve made.

LOUIS LIPINSKI, Baton Rouge, La.: There are a lot of things and civil liberties that were taken away from us, and I don’t think they’ll ever come back. I think some of them were necessary but some of them were not. And I think that there’s – I don’t think there’s a healthy balance.

LILLIAN MCDONALD, Minneapolis, Minn.: I don’t think it changed everything. We’re still a strong country. We’re still a strong community, and I actually think we’re even stronger now because of our awareness and because of our willingness to reach out, get to know others and do things differently.

JEFFREY BROWN: A day in and out of history that makes us wonder what’s changed, what hasn’t and who we are now. Joining me with their reflections are historians Michael Beschloss and Richard Norton Smith.

Richard, from the president at the top to those average Americans we just heard, a kind of need, a will to remember. What theme has jumped out at you?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH, George Mason University: Well, it’s interesting. We’ve been obsessed understandably with all that’s changed. A great deal has changed. We should begin by acknowledging that the greatest change obviously is for those who lost a loved one 10 years ago today or in the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Life will never be the same for them.

To the rest of us, there’s a certain amount of trauma. I think geography is a factor. I think if you live in New York, it’s much more real than if you’re in Terre Haute. Much of what has changed, like the proverbial iceberg, is beneath the surface. Government, we’re all thinking about this, the age of cutting back on government, the fact is government has been transformed, expanded by, I saw one estimate $600 billion has been spent over the last ten years on domestic security. New agencies have been created. Old agendas have been torn up.

On the other hand, think of what hasn’t changed. We had a brief moment of unity, of coming together, of common purpose, of collective outrage and a collective response. And that seems very much to be in the rear-view mirror.

JEFFREY BROWN: And Michael, I mean the president started his speech by saying in the decades since 9/11 we’ve known war and recession, passionate debates and political divides. And I heard recession, political divides. That’s where we spend much of our time on this program nightly talking about.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, presidential historian: That’s right, you know. And right after 9/11, people said and, you know, you sure wish it had come true, that we would never have the same kind of partisan antagonism we had before because 9/11 brought us all together as Americans. And this would be not only a different country and a different politics. Go back a couple months and take a look at that congressional fight over the debt crisis and you will see that 9/11 sadly did not change our politics in that way.

JEFFREY BROWN: And yet what kind of historical marker do you look back now and look at 9/11 now?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, I think to look at a positive one, it’s you know another thing we all talked about was living in America would never be the same again. That we would be afraid to go to shopping malls, to airports or to train stations or there would be a permanent sadness in some way. Those things have not turned out to be true. So anyone who thinks that there is something in our DNA that really does make this society a group of Americans I think has been proven right.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Something I think we can take great pride in, and that is if you look back at earlier wars, World War I, World War II, along with the fervor, the patriotic ardor can come fear and civil liberties can be endangered. Famously, German-Americans came under attack during World War I. Sauerkraut was renamed liberty cabbage. Beethoven records were smashed in the streets of Cincinnati. There may be a direct connection between liberty cabbage and freedom fries, but I think there has been an enormous… um, we saw Ray’s piece earlier.

JEFFREY BROWN: It didn’t lead to nativism.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Absolutely. Absolutely. And in fact, the stories that Ray told us about are notable. They’re important. But in part because I think they’re exceptions.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mentioned earlier the geographical differences. We saw in Judy’s piece the generational differences.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: All these things come to the floor.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think for instance we were talking earlier about our own memories on 9/11. I had just been to my younger son’s kindergarten. He was just about five years old, got in the car to go home and heard the first reports of the plane crashing into the World Trade Center. He was almost five. Changed our lives. He doesn’t remember it. He doesn’t quite get it.

JEFFREY BROWN: A tenth anniversary, we heard some people along the way wondering if this was a kind of an end or the beginning of an end there. The woman in the earlier piece, the woman that I spoke to in New York who said that she wondered, she said, we tend to forget. What does history tell us about when we have the ends of these cultural markers?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: The danger, and I understand her concern, the fact is there will undoubtedly people who say, we’ve built the memorial. You know, we’ve dedicated this shrine, and as you said, there are other problems that are crowding for our attention. History is not static. And certainly not in as dynamic a society as this.

On the other hand, the issues surrounding 9/11, the questions arising out of 9/11, whether it’s civil liberties, for example, or the role of government in protecting us or projecting force around the world American foreign policy, all of those that have been filtered through 9/11 will be at the heart of this election, and so in that sense the conversation goes on.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think about this question of national memory and how it persists or doesn’t?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, I think one way of looking at it is you know what Churchill said about there is nothing more exhilarating than being shot at without result? We were hit on 9/11. It sure was not without result, but this country really has come back. And so, if you remember where we were ten years ago and compare that to now, I think really we should, while being very sad about what happened and those that lost their lives and their families, there’s an element of this about which we should feel exhilarated.

JEFFREY BROWN: But it does exist, as you both look at and write about history, where does 9/11 fit in as a kind of national marker? Does that endure?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: That is going to depend on how secure the world we live in is during the next couple of decades. If this turned out to be essentially one event, we conquered it then it will be almost a singular event in American history. But if we are living, and I’m afraid this may be true, with the scourge of terrorism through the rest of our lifetimes and beyond, this will be something that essentially opened our eyes to a reality that is going to always be there.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Come back in 30 or 40 years and ask whether 9/11, in fact, was as some fear the beginning of a longer period of American decline or, in fact, a springboard to a new era of American greatness.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Richard Norton Smith, Michael Beschloss, thanks a lot.