W. Joseph Campbell

A counter-narrative: 9/11 did not ‘change everything’

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Washington Post on September 11, 2011 at 10:26 am

America’s news media have focused for days and more on the 10th anniversary of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. The dominant, inevitable, yet misleading theme of the coverage: 9/11 “changed everything.”

“When Everything Changed,” the Washington Post declares on its front page today.

“The Day Everything Changed,” says the Star-Telegram of Fort Worth, Texas.

“A Decade of Change,” declares the Press of Atlantic City.

“Forever changed?” asks the lead headline in today’s Chattanooga Times Free Press.

That interrogative is inadvertently perceptive, suggesting as it does an important if largely ignored counter-narrative about 9/11:

It is striking how little, fundamentally, has changed in American life because of the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in lower Manhattan, at the Pentagon, and near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

Airport check-ins, to be sure, are more imposing, grating, and intrusive than they were 10 years ago — suggestive of a broader if low-level and intermittent preoccupation with security matters.

But the hyperbolic, anniversary-driven coverage notwithstanding, the lives of most Americans seem not to have been dramatically or markedly altered by the vivid terror assaults 10 years ago.

Remember how the attacks were supposed to lead to a surge in patriotic sentiment? To a renewed commitment to religion and the spiritual side of life? To a deeper interest in news of the world? To a constant looking over one’s shoulder in anticipation of the next attack?

Polling data indicate that none of those responses to 9/11 was sustained or profound:

  • In June 2010, 59% of respondents to a Pew Research survey said they displayed the American flag at home, in the office, or on the car. That compares to 75% of the respondents  who said they did so in August 2002.
  • Pew Research data say that 36% of Americans attend religious services at least once a week, down from 42% in mid-November 2001.
  • In 2002, 48% of respondents to a Pew survey said they enjoyed keeping up with the news “a lot.”  In 2010, that response rate had ebbed to 45%.
  • Today’s Washington Post embeds revealing bits of survey data in its 16-page section devoted to the 9/11 anniversary. Particularly revealing was that 83% of residents in metropolitan Washington said no, they have not avoided a public event in recent years “because of concerns about terrorism.”

While the counter-narrative that 9/11 didn’t change everything has been obscure this year, it was somewhat in greater evidence at less-celebrated anniversaries of the attacks.

Two years ago, for example, the New York Times revisited predictions about how 9/11 would forever change Manhattan, and found them mostly empty and unfulfilled.

The Times article, “A Fortress City That Didn’t Come to Be,” recalled the expectations that emerged in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, writing:

“New York would become a fortress city, choked by apprehension and resignation, forever patrolled by soldiers and submarines. Another attack was coming. And soon.

“Tourists? Well, who would ever come again? Work in one of the city’s skyscrapers? Not likely. The Fire Department, gutted by 343 deaths, could never recuperate. …

“Eight years later, those presumptions are cobwebbed memories that never came to pass. Indeed, glimpses into a few aspects of the city help measure the gap between what was predicted and what actually came to be.”

“Cobwebbed memories that never came to pass.” A well-crafted passage, that — and an antidote, in a way, to the clichéd, “everything changed” coverage that has clouded the 10th anniversary of a terrible and infamous day.

After all, as columnist George Will wrote at the fifth anniversary of 9/11:

“Nothing changes everything.”

WJC

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