Three months ago today, terrorists struck America, killing 4,000 people. How much have these attacks changed life in the United States? Some, but less than one might think.
September 11 profoundly shocked Americans. Protected by two large oceans and graced with two peaceful neighbors, they have little personal or historical memory of foreign attacks. Japan attacked Pearl Harbor without warning sixty years ago. The last foreign attack before that came in 1812, when British troops burned down the White House.
Even for Americans old enough to remember Pearl Harbor, September 11 was different. The attack occurred on the U.S. mainland, not a distant island territory, and the target was ordinary people in office buildings, not U.S. servicemen aboard warships. And Americans learned of the two attacks in profoundly different ways. News of Pearl Harbor came over the radio; people waited for days to see grainy movie newsreels of the smoldering hulks of U.S. battleships. The horrors of September 11 unfolded before their very own eyes.
The terrorist attacks turned the business of government on its head. As in other crises, Americans rallied around their president. George W. Bush, less than a year removed from the most controversial election in a century, saw his public approval ratings soar into the 90s, and stay there.
As in wars past, power in Washington has gravitated to the president. Bush has pursued his war policy with the full backing of Congress, which authorized him to use “all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks.” The memory of Vietnam once made it inconceivable that Congress would give any U.S. president such a blank check to wage war. But after September 11 it did, with only one of 535 members voting no.
At home, the executive branch has vigorously exercised its existing powers and asserted new ones. It has detained, often on minor charges, more than a thousand people it suspects might have even remote links to September 11. It has claimed a right to monitor conversations between suspected terrorists and their lawyers. And it has ordered the establishment of military tribunals, beyond either congressional or judicial review, to try foreigners suspected of being terrorists.
These steps have generated little public opposition. Americans of every race, creed, and nationality have rallied around the flag-literally in many instances as the stars and stripes have suddenly appeared outside homes, in office windows, and on cars across the country.
America’s new patriotism has been positive rather than jingoistic. It has been defined more by the values of freedom, liberty, and tolerance that binds the amazingly diverse American society rather than by hatred of others. Ugly instances of violence against Arabs and Muslims have occurred, and been widely reported, but they have been the exception, not the rule.
Are an unchallenged president and a fervently patriotic America likely to persist? Probably not. The effects of September 11 have already begun to fade. Immediately after the attacks, nearly two out of three Americans worried they might become a victim of terrorism. Today, only one in three do. Initially, official warnings of a new attack stopped America in its track-last week’s warning barely made the evening news.
The declining public concern is understandable. September 11 has not been repeated. The anthrax attacks, whose origins remain unknown, look like a one-time event. And all these attacks targeted New York and Washington, leaving the rest of the country to watch events on television.
This is very different from Pearl Harbor. The Greatest Generation, as it likes to be called, regales its grandchildren with stories about how December 7, 1941, transformed American life. Thousands of young men immediately marched off to war. Women left the kitchen for the factory. Rationing forced all Americans, regardless of region, ethnicity, religion, and income to sacrifice. Victory required a national war effort.
The same cannot be said of September 11. America’s dominance today enables it to wage war in Afghanistan without national mobilization. No new military recruits are needed to defeat Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. Rationing might have involved Americans personally in the war effort, but it perversely would have harmed a U.S. economy that thrives on consumer spending. Indeed, the White House has run away from calls for sacrifice. It instead has urged Americans to hug their kids-and go shopping.
Yet many Americans-and especially younger ones-feel a deep need to do something for their country. And here Washington has failed to rise to the occasion. As the venerable journalist Daniel Schorr has pointed out, America’s new patriotism needs a mission-but neither Bush nor Congress has given it one.
Few have been the voices calling for a national service program for younger Americans, be it the Marine Corps, the Peace Corps, or AmeriCorps, a program to encourage new college graduates to teach in poor and rural neighborhoods. Even fewer voices have called for a new Marshall Plan to tackle the poverty and hopelessness that affects much of the world-and provides a breeding ground for terrorism.
Rather than giving America’s resurgent patriotism a mission, Washington looks to be back to fighting pre-September 11 battles, albeit with different rhetoric. President Bush refuses to rescind the big tax cut he pushed through Congress earlier this year, even though it overwhelmingly benefits the rich and has plunged the federal budget back into the red. Indeed, although Bush enjoys stratospheric popularity, he strangely continues to cater to conservative Republicans on nearly every issue, thus squandering the opportunity to build a new, lasting majority of the center.
So American life looks like it will slowly return to what it was like on September 10. Bush’s approval ratings will steadily erode as people begin to worry more about their pocketbooks than terrorists. Members of Congress will increasingly reassert themselves and look for ways to improve their chances of victory in next November’s elections. And an opportunity to harness America’s profound surge of patriotism to positive ends will have been lost.
That is, unless-or until-terrorists strike again.