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In Perspective: Where does 9/11 stand as a turning point in U.S. history?

And so it has been a decade — quite a long one, when you think about it. You know the story — how the attacks of September 11, 2001, led to two long, expensive, hot wars and an endless cold one in the shadows; how the George W. Bush administration reacted, was re-elected, and saw much of its counter-terror program not repealed, but ratified by President Obama.

With the perspective afforded by the passage of time, where does 9/11 rank as a turning point in our national history? For the victims and their families, innocents going about their lives, suddenly and brutally murdered, no other day can ever matter as much. It was the morning that took away mothers and fathers and wives and husbands and daughters and sons — took them away on what President Bush called a “day of fire.”

What about for the rest of us? It has gone in and out of fashion to act as though America overreacted to the attacks, that we somehow lack the European or the Middle Eastern capacity to get on with things amid the death and the debris. But if a failure to grow accustomed to terrorism is a vice, it is a vice worth having.

I believe history will come to view 9/11 as an event on par with November 22, 1963, the date on which John F. Kennedy was murdered, cutting short a presidency that was growing ever more promising. Dreams died that day in Dallas; it is easy to imagine the 1960s turning out rather differently had President Kennedy lived. Would America have grown so cynical so fast about the role of government had the more politically appealing JFK presided over Washington? Would the Vietnam War have been fought the way it was had he survived, or would he have found a better way forward than Lyndon Johnson did? Unknowable, of course, but intriguing.

We remember Dallas because it was an act of unspeakable violence captured on film that ended a life and changed our lives. So it is with 9/11. Thousands more died that day than on November 22, 1963, but the implications in terms of politics and culture have much in common. A surge of faith and patriotism followed by disillusionment; grief that turned to disappointment; a particular tragedy whose universal waves are felt long afterward, far away.

In that sense, that profound sense, November 22 has never ended. And neither, truth be told, has September 11, no matter how many years have passed.

Watch more segments from this episode.



  • Kcbeb


    While I agree with your conclusion that September 11, 2001, may have similar significance as November 22, 1963, what I have not heard uttered by anyone in the media is whether the firemen ultimately caused more death than they saved by lumbering up and down those many stair cases with their heavy accessories.   I heard powerful stories on PBS tonight about people that were intimately affected by that loss, including a story about a fire fighter who was right behind.   What I have not heard reported is how many people were slowed down by the bulk of the fire fighters and their equipment.   There also has not been a report that I’ve heard about how many people could not run down the stairs because the fire fighters were lumbering up the stairs with their heavy equipment, and how many people could not run down the stairs because there was a fire fighter walking slowly in front in communication with others and thereby taking up even more of the narrow stair case.  Without a doubt, the fire fighters did what they were trained to do and did it well, but I have not heard a report on whether they saved or lost lives as a result of their efforts.    

  • Ayman Fadel

    There’s no Middle Eastern “toleration” for violence. People tolerate it because they have no choice. US client governments like those Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Libya and Tunisia were perpetrators of violence, along with other actors. The US reaction after Sept 2001 has increased the violence.

    Meacham’s editorial this time was real weak.

  • whatever

     Moments in time….

    Announcement of the assassination of JFK over the school PA system.

    The space shuttle Challenger announcement while driving down 6th Street on the way to pick up my son from preschool.

    The radio at work announcing first, the crash on the WTC and then later, the second plane crashing into the second tower; sadness, shock, and the realization that the second plane wasn’t an accident. 

    I think I know how people must have felt at the time of Pearl Harbor.  That said, we haven’t done as well as our parents and grandparents did.  They wrapped it up comparatively quickly and cheaply.  It seems to me that this is a problem no one has addressed.  Are our political and military leaders less competent than the leaders during WWII or are we extending war into infinity for some unstated reason? 

  • Anonymous

    Mr. Meacham said, “It has gone in and out of fashion to act as though America overreacted
    to the attacks, that we somehow lack the European or the Middle Eastern capacity to get on with things amid the death and the debris. But if a failure to grow accustomed to terrorism is a vice, it is a vice worth having.”

    Give us a break.  How can you not see that we grossly overreacted to what was a low-tech crime, not a declaration of war, and nothing even in the remote ballpark of an existential threat?  As a European visitor to my parents’ church said, “9-11 was a pinprick.”  Certainly, 9-11 doesn’t compare to a real war (such as the one’s we started in Iraq and Afghanistan) in terms of death, destruction and enduring misery.

    9-11 was leveraged to prosecute a completely unjustified war in Iraq, based on a ham-handed, obvious propaganda campaign that never could have worked without the complicity of media.  How many hundreds of thousands, or even millions, have died or been reduced to abject misery because of this crime?

    9-11 was the excuse to establish and enormous security complex that, in my view, is more designed to spy on and control Americans than to keep us safe.  No doubt, virtually every phone conversation, email or text message is now “data mined” by unaccountable agencies.  Washington Post reporter Dana Priest and her photographer did a series on this issue, and they were astonished at the scope of the security complex.  The photographer said he was amazed by these gigantic buildings sprinkled around our nation’s capitol, but truly shocked when he got inside (when that was allowed) and found that, for example, the massive four stories seen from the outside were accompanied by 10 more stories of equal size, extending underground, complete with malls and other amenities.

    9-11 was also the excuse for the odious “Patriot Act.”  An American citizen can now be detained and convicted based on secret charges and secret evidence.  That is, the suspect, their lawyer, and even the jury, don’t know what the charges are, nor the evidence.  Even evidence that would prove the innocence of the suspect can be deemed “secret and classified.”  Ask Susan Lindauer about this.  Better yet, if you have the courage, invite her on the show and interview her.

    9-11 was also used to justify extrajudicial assassination, extraordinary rendition and torture.  These practices continue under the Obama administration.

    Moreover, what was “shock and awe” if not terror?  What about our continuing night raids that traumatize and kill innocents in Afghanistan?  What about the 2006 incident in Iraq, previously denied by the military but backed up by the latest batch of Wikileaks cables (although studiously ignored by most of the media, including PBS), in which, following a firefight, U.S. troops took a building, handcuffed 10 or 11 people – including 5 children under the age of six and four women – executed them, then called in airstrikes to destroy evidence?  Does that meet your definition of terror, Mr. Meacham?

    It may be out of fashion, but I for one have no doubt that the U.S. overreacted to 9-11, although I would use different terminology, because “overreacted” sounds like an honest mistake, when clearly something more sinister was at work.

  • whatever

    By the way.  If you want to continue to be afraid of al Qaeda, go right ahead.  Apparently no one in power, including the King of Cave-in Obama, is going to try to stop you.   But.  Don’t you dare try to force me into living in fear the rest of my life.  I won’t do it.  And don’t even try to go to with the thought that the weakness that Obama has displayed for the last 2 1/2 years somehow validates Bush’s policies.  They don’t.  

    We can’t afford the financial or personal costs associated with eternal war that is continually seeking out new enemies.  The fact that we’re aiding the same people in Libya that we’re currently killing in Afghanistan should give any reasonable person cause to stop and think.  Reacting to an attack is one thing.  Going out and seeking/making new enemies is something else. 

  • Jane

    American people have always come to the aide of other American’s during trying times since WW1. Now-a-days, it is politicians and the media who are purposly tearing apart this tradition. The hate spewed on TV night after night in prime time is a disgrace and these so-called elite and so-called educated pundits do more damage now and, will continue in the future to call attention AWAY from our young children as to how great America is and always has been.

  • J7t14r

    Anyone who watched the Frontline report, and I watched twice, knows the real story of 9/11. So, is it a question as to whether or not there will be prosecutions?

  • Raymond Wallace

    Thank God…I was beginning to think I was alone in my ability to grasp the painfully obvious.  I don’t mean to downplay your intelligence…I just think most people are made retarded by their dickless fearfulness.