Terror's Half-Life

For better and for worse, September 11 did not change everything

  • Share
  • Read Later
Greg Semendinger / NYPD / ABC / AP

For the several thousand Americans who died that day, of course, and the thousands more killed or wounded in the resulting wars and for the families and friends of all of them, the existential consequences of 9/11 could not be larger. But its impact on the ways most of us live our lives? Not so much. It was a jolt that altered the course of history spectacularly, but it has not, for better and for worse, transformed the American people. Terror, we discovered, has a half-life.

After the attacks, experts predicted epidemic levels of posttraumatic stress. But the number of people suffering psychological problems was vanishingly small — just six months later, a fraction of 1%, even among Manhattanites. In the short term, in fact, the attacks actually made most of us happier. According to polls in the fall and winter after 9/11, a huge majority of Americans, between 57% and 72%, suddenly thought the country was headed in the right direction. We felt united in our horror and confusion and determination. But within six months, that spike of hopefulness had evaporated. On one hand, war fever began rising, and on the other, everyday life in America returned to normal.

Like a lot of New York City families, my wife and I fretted in the aftermath. We considered moving to another cosmopolitan city where the chances of mass catastrophe seemed remote, and we found the perfect house — in New Orleans. But we decided to stay put. Terror has a half-life.

Absent 9/11 or its equivalent, we wouldn't have invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, wouldn't have spent $2 trillion or $3 trillion fighting those wars and so might not now be in the grip of a panicky debate over how to cut $2 trillion or $3 trillion of debt. But have the attacks and our two wars made the U.S. significantly more inclined to exercise military power (as World War II did) or less (as Vietnam did)? No. Was President George W. Bush's 2001 line-in-the-sand declaration, "Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists," the beginning of a permanent new Manichaean U.S. posture? No.

For a couple of years, our reasonable fears spilled over here and there into panicky overreach, leading to un-American excesses. But then we calmed down. Terror has a half-life. We did not turn into a police state. Free political discourse resumed.

Before 9/11, American prejudice against Muslims was negligible, so that is a real change. Yet given that al-Qaeda casts itself as an Islamic vanguard and its jihadists have continued trying to kill American civilians, it's surprising how relatively little anti-Muslim ugliness has been spewed. Last summer's Ground Zero — mosque controversy was sad and unnecessary, and the ongoing anti-Shari'a-law movement is nuts. But we've seen much, much worse — internments of Japanese Americans during the Second World War and of German Americans during the First.

It takes us a little longer now to get into office buildings — and a lot longer to get on airplanes. But those are inconveniences, not sea changes.

There was one large way in which America and Americans should've and could've changed but did not. That would have required President Bush to announce an urgent national project for the post-9/11 age: Because our dependence on oil is ultimately what sustains the jihadist pathology, he could have said, we must start reducing that dependence as quickly as possible. In the emergency can-do window of 2001 and 2002, he could have rallied Congress and the public to support a serious, sensible, radical new energy policy, including significant new taxes on petroleum.

But he demanded nothing of most Americans. "We will rid the world of the evildoers," he said, but the armed forces and intelligence community — a tiny proportion of us — would take care of that. The other 98% were encouraged only to keep calm and carry on. "Do your business around the country," the President said in September 2001. "Fly and enjoy America's great destination spots." "People are going about their daily lives, working and shopping and playing," he said two months later, "going to movies and to baseball games."

Yes, right, good: we were not cowed. But with the insistence that American life should not change a whit, we implicitly declared that the era of irrational exuberance would proceed and accelerate. Expanding debt and shriveled savings, prices of real estate and stocks soaring ever higher — that was the way we rolled before 9/11, and by God, that'd be the way we rolled after 9/11.

The national display of resilience has been amazing and heartening. But the what-me-worry flip side of resilience is the state of denial about our unsustainable bad habits. Yes, the terrorists would have won if we'd cowered in fear. Undaunted and unchanged, America has shown its mettle. But I think we'd be feeling better now if, 10 years ago, we'd also had the courage to see a new way forward and really change.