Americans had a quandary last week: what to do on September 11? Pray? Pause for a moment of silence? Go to a performance of Mozart’s Requiem? Or have picnics, as we do on Memorial Day? Only the TV networks seemed to know what to do. On September 11, CBS broadcast “The Day that Changed America.” Fox showed “The Day America Changed.” PBS featured “How We Changed,” every night for a week. The similar titles reflected the truism so widely repeated in the months after September 11: the United States, the world, will never be the same. Some young people I know had been more frightened, a year ago, by the prophecy of change than by the constant repetition of the images of the World Trade Center collapsing. But had the predicted change really come true?In prior columns, I have discussed the technologies, high and low, of terrorism and counterterrorism. Now that a year has passed since that horrible day, it seems appropriate to step back to reflect, to deviate from my usual hardware focus, and to muse on this larger question: how have we changed, and why?
Yes, some things are different. More than 3,000 people died in the United States, most of whom would be alive today if not for al Qaeda. But that by itself is not enough to change the U.S. Sudden, unexpected, tragic deaths have always plagued the world. Since 9/11, there have probably been about 150,000 accidental deaths in the United States, each just as unexpected and tragic as the September 11 ones. (150,000 was the number in 1998.) Medical tragedies are even more common. A few months ago I lost a dear friend to an unexpected coronary embolism. Suddenly, without warning, he was dead. That was just as tragic, to his family and to me, as were the September 11 deaths to their friends and families. I am not minimizing those deaths. But we are a big country. You have to kill many more than 3,000 people to change America forever.
Some would say that the attacks damaged our economy. Maybe so, but I believe that the dotcom crash and the corporate fraud scandals had a bigger impact and were more important to the downswing than the terrorism.
Some might say that the biggest change in America is the erosion of our civil liberties. At the Guantanamo Bay naval base alone we hold 600 prisoners stripped of rights. But even that is relatively small, compared to what many expected after 9/11. And erosion of civil liberties has always been a problem requiring vigilance, even prior to the Ashcroft era. Many of the restrictions the courts have recently placed on the Attorney General outlawed procedures used by the FBI during the Clinton administration. In that sense, little has changed.
In contrast to the U.S., Afghanistan really has changed, in a way that al Qaeda must detest. I don’t claim that we have turned Afghanistan into a democracy, and I am as appalled as everyone else at the reports of continuing murders and corruption. But I take great pleasure in the films of women going back to work and attending school, and to the return of some degree of civil liberties and religious freedom to that country. To my mind, despite many shortcomings, Afghanistan is enormously better off now than it was on September 11.