The ‘direct line’ between national unity after 9/11 and partisan polarization in 2021

It has been two decades since Sept. 11,2001 and we are still learning how the terror attacks shaped our politics, military and sense of national unity. Garrett Graff is the author of the book "The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11." He also hosts a new podcast called "Long Shadow" about lingering questions after the attacks, and joins Amna Nawaz to discuss its impact.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now Amna Nawaz widens the lens with a conversation about how September 11 and its aftermath changed the direction of the country.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Judy, two decades later, we are still learning how the September 11 terror attacks shaped our politics, our military and our sense of national unity.

    Garrett Graff is the author of the book "The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11." He also hosts a new podcast called "Long Shadow" about lingering questions after the attacks. He joins me now.

    Garrett Graff, welcome back to the "NewsHour." Always good to have you here.

    When you first wrote the book and we talked about it, you said your goal wasn't to recount the facts of the day, but it was to remind everyone what it felt like on the day.

    Twenty years later, do you think it's still as important to remember sort of viscerally what that day felt like?

    Garrett Graff, "The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11": Absolutely.

    And I think part of this is, here we are 20 years later, a generation later. We are seeing this event slip from memory into history. I mean, of the 13 Marines and the sailor killed in Kabul in August, only two of them were actually old enough to be out of diapers on 9/11.

    And so the story that we tell them and the future generations about what this day meant to our country can't just be about the facts of the day. It has to be about the way that humans and U.S. government and citizens across the country lived the day, because so much of our reaction as a government and as a people and a country afterwards was driven by the emotion of that day, the fear, the chaos, the confusion, the trauma, as much as it was the facts and the actual events of that day.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Your remarkable book includes over 480 American stories and recounting that day.

    And I'm curious, because I know, previously, when we have talked about it, you said one of the things that stood out to you as a constant theme was this idea of luck, that it was really just a matter of one decision vs. another over whether people lived or did not live that day.

    Does that still stand out to you?

  • Garrett Graff:

    Yes, even more so, actually.

    When we look at all of the different ways that that — small decisions that day, when to step out for a cup of coffee, when to place a telephone call, which bus to ride, which plane to catch, determined, ultimately, life and death that day, it remains to me one of the most important and most poignant themes of that day.

    And the way that — the other thing we have to remember even all these many years later is that we have no idea what tomorrow will bring, and that that's an important life lesson that many of the survivors of that day and the victims of that day that I talk to still talk about.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And in the immediate aftermath of those attack, we all remember the sense of national unity.

    I think it's fair to say we are not there today. So, Garrett, when you look over the last 20 years, how did that happen?

  • Garrett Graff:


    And, unfortunately, I think that they are very much related. One of the challenges of taking stock of this war on terror 20 years in this week is to realize how much we got wrong, as a government, as a nation, in the way that we responded in the West, the way that NATO responded globally.

    Sort of step by step, we squandered the global union and the sense of purpose that brought us together after 9/11, and, in fact, time and again gave into some of the darkest worst angels of our nature.

    When you look at the war in Iraq, the CIA torture program, the black sites, here we are, 20 years later, Guantanamo Bay still there. None of the 9/11 plotters have actually been brought to trial yet, and that there's actually a very direct line between the unity that we experienced after 9/11, the decisions that we made as a government, and our sense of partisanship and polarization that continues to this day now.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Garrett, there is now an entire generation of Americans who can vote, who have graduated college, who are young professionals starting their own families who have no firsthand memory of that day.

    I'm curious how you think this day resonates with them, what place in history it holds for them.

  • Garrett Graff:

    So, this is going to be the huge difference of the next 10 years, is that we are going to be seeing a generation who has never known the nation as it existed before 9/11, but have spent their entire life growing up in the country shaped by it.

    And I think one of the things that most stands out is that America is much more afraid today, that, when you look back on 9/11, and you see that 17-minute period between the first crash and the second crash, 8:46 to 9:03, you see just how innocent a nation we were, that we all defaulted to believing that this was an accident, a mechanical problem, the pilot having a heart attack, a small plane, a helicopter, that there was no way that this could be an attack or war on our country.

    And now, of course, with 20 years past, we are a country that sort of that fear of being in public spaces, that fear of an attack coming in the places where we feel most safe is a daily presence in our lives.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is Garrett Graff, author of the best selling book "The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11."

    Garrett, thanks so much for being with us. Always good to talk to you.

  • Garrett Graff:

    Amna, thanks so much for helping to remember this week.

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