Two beams of light soar up through the night sky at the site of the Twin Towers as a memorial to the World Trade Center tragedy. Credit: Corbis
We’ve heard the solemn words over and over:
“Everything is different.” “Everything has changed.”
To state that we live in a different world than we did before September 11, 2001, (or that America is “different”) is both self-evident and uninformative. Yet we hear it continuously, the speakers (often politicians and government officials) using the phrase as if expressing a profound truth instead of a trite platitude.
How much was America changed by the 9/11 attacks? It depends on whether you’re talking about the American government or the American people. The government has of course changed greatly — mostly in the realm of national security; air travel is the most obvious example, with reinforced cockpit doors, invasive security screening, and armed air marshals. The government’s reaction (many would argue overreaction) to the attacks has cost blood and treasure unprecedented in world history. America as a country will certainly never be the same.
But the picture for Americans is a very different matter. Contrary to popular opinion, very few American’s personal lives were changed.
According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted just three months after September 11, only slightly more than half of Americans surveyed said that the attacks changed their personal lives. Even more remarkably, two-thirds of those surveyed said the country had changed for the better; they believed the 9/11 attacks had actually done America more good than harm in the long term. (This probably reflected the popular but short-lived sentiment that Americans had unified around a common enemy.)
Seven months after the attacks, only one in five teenagers said that the 9/11 attacks directly affected their lives, according to a telephone survey of 1,003 high school students conducted for the Horatio Alger Association. An October 10, 2001, ABC News article, “Lingering Emotions,” reported a poll that found that “Nearly half of Americans surveyed—44 percent—say the attacks…had no lasting impact on their mental health.” By January 2002 almost 90 percent of Americans in a CBS News poll said that their lives had returned to normal or never changed after the attacks, and according to a study
published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, six months after the attacks nearly 95 percent of Americans living outside of New York City reported no significant lingering symptoms related to stress from the attacks.
Thus the idea that most American’s lives profoundly changed after 9/11 is simply a patriotic myth. That’s not to say that some people (especially those in Manhattan at the time) were not, and are not, sincerely devastated by the attacks—just that they are not representative of most Americans. For most who were traumatized in the months after the attacks, any lingering pain has faded in the decade since.
So why do so many people believe that Americans were — and are — so devastated? Sensational and biased news coverage is part of the reason many people overestimate the emotional impact of the attacks. In reporting tragedy, when there is any question of the extent of the damage (both physical and emotional) the news media consistently emphasize gloom and devastation. Journalists always focus on the most panicked and alarmed victims after any disaster. The majority of Americans who were temporarily saddened but recovered quickly and moved on with their lives are not newsworthy, and thus not represented in the news.
Most Americans are far more resilient than the experts and public gave them credit for. Perhaps that is the real legacy of the September 11 attacks.