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The Challenge

America’s Reaction and Changes Following September 11

new york city skyline by istockphoto.com/ © sx70; JEANMARIE SANTOPATRE

The attacks on September 11, 2001, changed the course of our nation. The hijackings sent two passenger jets into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York, another into the Pentagon, and a fourth crashing into a field in Pennsylvania. These acts of terrorism initiated a decade of changes to our nation’s politics, foreign policy, civil liberties, media, relationships, and more. “There is a whole new generation of Americans who were too young or not yet born when the initial attack took place,” says James Simon, Director of the Journalism Program and English Chair at Fairfield University. “They will get the footage with the same combination of horror and dread that we all felt in 2001.”

To make sense of the effects and potentially renewed trauma of the milestone, Westport Magazine turned to area lecturers Janie Leatherman of Fairfield University, Jeremy Pressman of the University of Connecticut and Amanda Moras of Sacred Heart University. They
weigh in on the changes of the last decade.

Janie Leatherman, PH.D.
Director of the International Studies Program and Politics Professor at Fairfield University

What is the major change in post-9/11 national- and international-level politics?
September 11, in some respects, was a watershed moment. While the Cold War was ending, many seeds for other developments were being sown. The U.S. invested heavily in covert operations with mujahideen and…backing Osama bin Laden, which came back to bite us. September 11 effectively demarcated the end of the Cold War and something else, but no one was sure what that something else was. It looked like the promotion of liberal markets around the world and democratic systems as the major agenda on the part of the West.
September 11, in many respects, put the breaks on democratization because…the leading agenda of Western powers was the war on terror. Private policing, surveillance and control were part of the response to 9/11 around the world, which legitimized torture and disappearances in one country after another.

Our national community was deeply affected by the attacks, and people have different orientations as to what it means and how we should best respond to it. Those differences determine what kind of foreign policy we should have in a post-9/11 world. Do we want to work with reconciliation and eliminate root causes of things with Al Qaeda or do we want to try to take security measures? That opens up a lot of real profound questions as to what kind of leadership we would have in our world. What concerns me a great deal though is, in general, we see a global collapse of safe spaces. Public forums are targets of violence, and there is a lack of respect of what we had historically thought of as safe spaces.

How has “patriotism” changed pre- and post-9/11?
One of the initial responses to the attacks on 9/11 was a sense of standing in solidarity with the U.S. The people targeted during 9/11 were people of the world, people who were truly cosmopolitan. This was not just an attack on the U.S. … it was an attack on the idea of people of different faiths and communities from all parts of the world living and working together.
The war on terror elevated one other element of patriotism, which is a kind of patriotism that acts in fear of others. There was an opportunity to take 9/11 as a moment of understanding, to act in solidarity, but what the U.S. lost by emphasizing the war on terror was the global support we had gained.

How did 9/11 affect national elections? Expectations of voters?
On the part of the electorate, they felt we needed to do something, but what should that something be? For many people acting out of fear or anger…the whole mind-set to get revenge, settle the score, reassert our power globally…helped to open doors to more militarized foreign policy. That deeply divided the U.S. into red and blue zones—between conceptions of response that came out of fear and conceptions of response that came out of: “Let’s work for solidarity.” That has had a dramatic impact on the electorate and the outcomes of national elections.

Jeremy Pressman, PH.D.
Associate Professor of Political Science and Coordinator for the Middle Eastern Studies Program at UConn

How has Americans’ perception of Muslims changed since 9/11?
For some Americans, what happened on September 11 is directly about Islam—so the way that they see Muslims, whether Muslims at large in the world or Muslim-Americans, is very much colored by 9/11. They have a difficulty or unwillingness to differentiate between Muslims with different political ideologies or different attitudes, whether about 9/11 or about other political issues. I don’t think it’s disconnected from the history of challenges between races and ethnicities in this country.

Secondly, the U.S. government over the last ten years has tried pretty hard, both under former President Bush and President Obama, to differentiate between Muslims and the Islamic ideology that was associated with the violence and terror of September 11 and Muslims in the world at large. I think there certainly is a tension in the U.S. between what has been a government position, endorsed by some Americans, and other Americans who think that that differentiation is false.

We see this double up in certain ways in the U.S. We have seen it in congressional statements or congressional hearings—how different members of the GOP or Democratic Party frame the hearings and how they talk about Islam when they talk about homeland security and national security. This shows the tension between the two ideas.

What does Osama bin Laden’s death mean for the future of military strategy in the region?
It is fair to suggest that the killing of Osama bin Laden gave the President more room to start a more rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan than you would have in the absence of killing bin Laden. That is not just something in a strategic view, but something at the popular level, where average Americans are asking, “Why are we so deeply involved in Afghanistan to this day?”

The second aspect is it has to raise questions about the overall direction of U.S. national security policy. All of this started on September 11 by an act perpetrated by Al Qaeda. Then, over the last decade, there has been a more expansive definition created, which came to include the need for the war in Iraq, for the experience in Afghanistan, for action in Pakistan, Yemen and many other places in world. Something with such huge symbolic significance, such as the killing of Osama bin Laden, raises questions for Americans and members of the political leadership about whether there is room for the U.S. not to relax and not to abandon security measures to counter Al Qaeda but whether there is room for a ramping down. Of course, a backdrop to this is the U.S. economic situation, which leaves less room for an expensive security policy.

Amanda Moras, PH.D.
Assistant Professor of Sociology at Sacred Heart University

How do the perspectives of the attack and post-9/11 America differ between generations?
I am often struck by the way some of my students, eighteen- to twenty-one-years-old, talk about 9/11—they were very young when this happened. Seeing how they remember the attacks, or even don’t remember them, and how they view the war—as well as connections they make between the war and 9/11—I hear a lot of racial and religious profiling….

When I read their papers, they write sentences about how Americans feel about Muslims, and I am constantly telling them the two are not separate groups necessarily. They use the term American as if no Muslims are Americans and use the word Muslim as if no Muslims are Americans, but, obviously, there are lots of Muslims who are Americans. They have come to almost think of Islam as something completely outside of American identity, and it’s not and never has been. These ideas have spread throughout the generations.

How have the attacks affected the concepts of racial and religious profiling?
When the attacks first happened, there were media images of people supposedly celebrating the violence—and this did happen—but the idea that [the celebrating] was so widespread fed into a lot of racism. What happened was Americans were taught to think that Middle Eastern people were completely separate from them. It created a whole culture of fear and separation that fuels racism.

September 11 brought about a huge nationalist and nativist culture, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but, at times, turning inward and celebrating who supposedly belongs excludes people and declares an enemy—who doesn’t belong. The conversation regarding the mosque being built on Ground Zero all comes back to racial profiling, since people feel having the mosque is offensive. This conversation makes the issue a religious one—but it was not; rather, it was a terrorist issue.

Note: Interviews have been edited for fit and clarity.