Did 9/11 change everything?
Americans have always adapted to new challenges
CNN contributor Garrick Utley reports on and analyzes stories of national and international significance for CNN. The following essay is his thoughts on the effects of September 11 on the United States.
NEW YORK (CNN) -- It has been an easy, simplistic and understandable thing to say for the past year:
"September 11 changed everything."
Did it really? Did the horrors and the human toll of that indelible, infamous day fundamentally change American life? Not at all. American life has always been about change and facing challenges, and from the Civil War to the Great Depression to World War II, Americans have always risen to confront the monumental events of their times.
True, the belief that the United States was a privileged sanctuary, that distant threats could not disturb our lives at home also collapsed that day. And yet, as Americans examine their altered world, as we cope with the economic uncertainties, personal insecurities and even anxieties of what lies in the future, the national mood -- whatever that is -- is shaped by much more than the trauma of 9/11.
One way to test this is to ask a simple question:
What if it hadn't happened?
What if on September 5, 2001, we had read or heard the news that a number of suspected terrorists had been arrested by U.S. law enforcement authorities acting on intelligence tips? The young men (most of whom, we were informed, were from Saudi Arabia) were planning to hijack a number of planes. It was not clear what the would be terrorists were planning to do with the planes, but the news reports noted that some of the men had studied at flight schools in the United States. It would have been a big story on September 5. But by the 11, it would likely have faded from the public's attention.
And why not? There were so many other stories and forces directly touching our lives. The wonderful, giddy euphoria of a dot.com wonderland in a "new" economy playground was already gone as bubbles burst and personal investments and 401K plans headed down. As the once high economic tide receded, it would expose what had been lurking beneath the surface: the accounting scandals, corporate financial games and Wall Street cronyism that have poisoned public trust in business and the markets.
In short, we didn't need the attacks of September 11 to feel shaken, to feed the concerns that so many Americans were already feeling then and are even more so today.
Certainly, dangers are still out there. President Bush may lead the United States into war with Iraq. Terrorists most likely will strike again in some way at some time. But we have been here before, facing even greater challenges.
Consider this. Next month will mark the 40th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis. The United States and the Soviet Union stood at the brink of nuclear confrontation. As a child growing up in Chicago in the 1950s I heard the citywide air raid sirens as they were tested every Tuesday morning at 10:30. The wailing sound of the alarm penetrated the school class room where we had learned to duck under our desks in case of nuclear attack. And we lived with it.
Today, we are rightly concerned that terrorists may one day obtain a small nuclear weapon. The damage it could cause would be devastating, even greater than the losses of September 11. But it would not be the nuclear annihilation of the country and a good part of the world as seemed all too possible in 1962.
Of course, perspective has its limits. We are concerned about the threats and challenges of the here and now, not the dangers of forty years ago. Still, if we, as a nation, draw up a balance sheet of our lives and personal security today, it looks pretty good. The Cold War is history, nuclear weapons are being disarmed, the economy and the markets are down, but not out. The business cycle still exists.
Charles Dickens had it right when he began his "A Tale of Two Cities" set in the fear and chaos of the bloody French Revolution with the insight, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times".
September 11 was certainly the worst of our times. But it didn't cause Americans to become afraid or lose their heads. We are already adapting to living with terrorism even as we continue the struggle to defeat it. We adapt and change. As we always have.
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