What 9/11 Changed: Reflecting on the Cultural Legacy of the Attacks, 20 Years On

What 9/11 Changed: Reflecting on the Cultural Legacy of the Attacks, 20 Years On

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Sept. 11, 2001, is one of that those dates that divides history into a “before” and an “after.” The terrorist attacks that day tragically and permanently altered thousands of lives; they also changed the tenor of debate everywhere from the kitchen table to the halls of Congress.

Twenty years later, we asked experts from around the University of Virginia to comment on some of the biggest changes they saw, from foreign policy and immigration to literature and pop culture.

Their answers were especially interesting as the nation and the world confronts the COVID-19 pandemic, which, though different from 9/11 in many ways, will undoubtedly be another before-and-after moment in the history books.

Here’s what they had to say.

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American Political Culture and Campaigns

The 9/11 attacks generated a unique political unity that seems almost impossible today, said Larry Sabato, director of UVA’s Center for Politics.

“Less than a year before, George W. Bush had been elected despite losing the popular vote, a controversial election that became even more controversial with the recount [and Supreme Court decision],” Sabato said. “There were still a lot of hard feelings, but 9/11 in many ways reunited the American people.” Bush went from losing the popular vote to having a 91% approval rating, “almost unheard-of.” 

However, Sabato said, that image of unity in some ways masked discord we are still grappling with today.

“Despite Bush’s attempts to lower the temperature and direct Americans’ anger – understandable and righteous anger – toward those who actually committed the attacks, many completely innocent Muslim Americans were targeted and faced discrimination. Tragically, that is a part of human nature we are still struggling with,” Sabato said, noting the discrimination and violence Asian Americans have faced since the advent of COVID-19.

At the Center for Politics, Sabato and his team responded to 9/11 in part by increasing their global programming, eventually launching the Global Perspectives on Democracy program to host groups of all ages, from high school students to high-level government officials, for exchange programs and public events.

“We felt it was important to help Americans understand the world and the world to understand Americans and American democracy,” Sabato said. “I think that is one lasting lesson of 9/11: You cannot teach or practice American democracy in a vacuum.”

Literature & Culture

Associate professor of English Sandhya Shukla has taught her “Post 9/11 American Literature and Culture” course on and off since 2008. Immediately following the attacks, she said, many cultural representations of 9/11 focused on processing grief and trauma. But in time, the stories became more complicated, contending with all sorts of divides opened up by the events of that day.

“9/11 can be seen as both a radical rupture or shift in history, and also a flash point that really crystalized some long-held tensions in the U.S.’s relationship to the rest of the world, particularly in how we think about immigration, diasporas and religious fundamentalism,” Shukla said.

Among the materials she teaches are films like “United 93,” a documentary-style fiction about the passengers who crashed their hijacked plane into a Pennsylvania field, a sacrifice that likely prevented another attack on a U.S. landmark. Another film, “Man on Wire,” premiered in 2008, but focuses on Phillippe Petit’s 1974 high-wire walk between the towers of the World Trade Center, an event also depicted in the 2009 novel “Let the Great World Spin.” Both of these pieces use Petit’s balancing act as an allegory, Shukla said, and help students understand what has been lost culturally and politically with the physical destruction of an already contested symbol.

She also highlights “Netherland,” a 2008 novel by Joseph O’Neill about a Dutch-British immigrant’s experience in New York, which then-President Barack Obama chose as one of his favorite books in 2009.

“To me, that novel, and especially Obama’s choice to praise it, signaled a change in how at least certain leaders wanted to see America, after seven years deep suspicion about globality. It seemed to mark a turn toward new commitments to multicultural societies and new ways of being in the world,” she said. Other texts like “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” a 2007 novel by Mohsin Hamid about a Pakistani immigrant’s experience in post-9/11 New York and various sites of economic restructuring in Europe, Latin America and Asia, also added complexity to the cultural conversation around 9/11.

“The stories have gotten richer and more diverse in the years since the attacks, and we now have the benefit of history, seeing their longer-term effects of the attacks and America’s political responses to them play out,” she said.

Teaching the course in the fall of 2020, Shukla said she emphasized how students might think about 9/11 in relation to the pandemic and what COVID-19 has shown us about how connected we are, across all kinds of borders, but also how unequal, and the resulting opportunities and tensions.

“These two major events are not the same, obviously, but I do think 9/11 and the cultural responses to it can help us think about other crises of nationality and globality, like the one we are currently experiencing and will need to work through for many years to come,” she said.  

Foreign Policy

Clearly, the terrorist attacks “greatly reduced policymakers’ tolerance for risk,” said Eric Edelman, a practitioner senior fellow at UVA’s Miller Center who retired from a U.S. Foreign Service career in 2009. Edelman held positions in the departments of State and Defense, as well as the White House, and served as undersecretary of defense for policy from 2005 to 2009.

“The tolerance for risk went down significantly, certainly for the Bush administration and I would argue for subsequent administrations as well,” Edelman said. “It may be only now, with the Biden administration, that caution has to some degree come to an end, though that is debatable as well. But choosing 9/11 as their date for withdrawing from Afghanistan, and more totally withdrawing from Afghanistan, suggests a higher tolerance for risk.”

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The risks posed by terrorism might have distracted politicians and the public from other risks, Edelman said, especially those posed by other superpowers like China and Russia.

“The focus on terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, I think, may have diverted attention to some degree from China and the threat it represents,” he said. “That is now being remedied a bit, with more a focus on how the U.S. can remain competitive with China, but I do think 9/11 caused some delay in recognizing the risks posed by China and by Russia. That was an opportunity cost of the focus on counterterrorism.”

Domestic Policy

The attacks also significantly changed policymaking at home. Melody Barnes, executive director of the Karsh Institute of Democracy at UVA, was working in Congress on 9/11 as chief counsel to the late U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy for his position on the Senate Judiciary Committee. She and other staff began to flee the Senate office buildings as they realized what was happening. As they gathered outside, she remembers hearing a loud, far-off explosion, likely from the attack on the Pentagon at about 9:30 a.m.

“It was surreal,” Barnes recalled. “We had no idea if the Capitol would be next.”

Barnes and her staff went to a colleague’s Capitol Hill home, where they stayed the rest of the day watching news coverage. That night, she finally drove home to Northern Virginia. She could smell the acrid smoke still coming from the Pentagon.

Still, she went back to work the next day, joining in a show of strength from Congress. However, another threat, an unknown package outside the Senate chamber, forced Senate staff to evacuate again, this time very quickly.

“I saw senators just start to run out of the Senate chamber, and someone came over and told us about a suspicious package and said every exit is open – run,” she recalled. “I remember running down the hall, wondering how long I had, if I was about to die. Those are the kinds of memories I have.”

Twenty years later, those memories have stayed with Barnes, who went on to direct the White House Domestic Policy Council under President Barack Obama before coming to UVA. She also sees through-lines in many policy issues, from the creation of the Department of Homeland Security after 9/11 to ongoing debates about privacy.

“Creating a new government department is something that is often talked about, but rarely happens,” Barnes said. “9/11 was the forcing mechanism to create the DHS and when things happen quickly, all of the rough edges don’t get smoothed out. Working through some of those issues took many years.”

9/11 also focused attention on surveillance and interagency communication, especially how law enforcement agencies communicate with each other.

“The way we think about security – how we move through airports and public spaces, how we secure our public buildings – changed significantly,” she said. With that came new privacy concerns and worries about excessive government surveillance.

“We have only rarely been threatened on American soil, and 9/11 in many ways ended a sense of innocence and freedom of movement that many Americans had,” Barnes said. “It also shifted issues of privacy and animated a renewed and more intense debate about how we balance our liberties, including privacy, with threats to the U.S., and how we do that without profiling people and generating discrimination. Those debates have not gone away; they continue to be heated and fraught.” 

Those issues were particularly significant in the immigration debate, Barnes said.

Immigration Policy and Debate

On Sept. 6, 2001, Bush officials held publicized, orchestrated talks with Mexican President Vicente Fox, focused on a temporary worker visa program. Those talks, held just four days before the terrorist attacks, accurately reflect Bush’s initial stance on immigration, said David Leblang, the Ambassador Henry J. Taylor and Mrs. Marion R. Taylor Endowed Professor of Politics and professor of public policy.

“During and after the election, George W. Bush and other establishment Republicans tried to ‘rebrand’ the Republican Party as immigrant-friendly, and adopted several pro-immigration positions, especially focusing on labor and the economy,” he said.

Then, 9/11 happened and gave, as Leblang put it, “a tremendous amount of energy to border hawks,” with Americans understandably concerned about how the hijackers entered the country.

Twenty years later, Leblang said that rapid shift in sentiment has led to two lasting and influential changes. One is very concrete: the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, which absorbed control of immigration, including Customs and Border Control and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

“Immigration was no longer a question about migration or who we are as a country or about labor market competition. It was a security issue; we saw the ‘securitization’ of immigration,” Leblang said. “That changed the nature of immigration enforcement quite dramatically.”

President Bush greets soldiers and first responders outside the Pentagon. (Photo courtesy George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum)

After the attacks, Bush, President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump deported record numbers of immigrants, going from about 18,000 criminal deportations in 2001 to 91,000 in 2012. That data does not include even more “voluntary departures,” when migrants are giving a choice between leaving and facing charges.

The second big change, Leblang said, came in public attitudes. “The attacks understandably injected terror into the immigration debate,” he said. “Pre-9/11, most of the conversation around immigration was about labor and the economy, not national security and terrorism. 9/11 gave energy to nativist and populist groups that did not want any immigration.”

The current wave of discrimination against Asian Americans in some ways resembles that post-9/11 shift, Leblang said, a jingoistic response to the threat of the coronavirus. 

“I don’t think all of the tensions we are seeing now can be traced back to 9/11, but it is hard to talk about immigration today without talking about 9/11 and how it influenced this posture of deterrence and securitization or militarization,” he said.

Religion and Civil Religion

A December 2001 Pew Research survey found that the 9/11 attacks increased the prominence of religion in the U.S. “to an extraordinary degree,” with 78% of respondents agreeing that religion’s role in American life is growing, as opposed to 37% eight months earlier.

Matthew Hedstrom, an associate professor of religious studies specializing in modern American religion, said that bump was “a temporary spike” amid a broader trend of Americans leaving organized religion, begun in the 1990s. However, he said we are still feeling the effects of another kind of religion that grew after the attacks – what he called “civil religion.”

Before 9/11, the war in Vietnam and other hardships had somewhat eroded American civil religion, but the attacks gave it “a shot in the arm,” Hedstrom said.

He cites religiously influenced symbols of patriotism, such as songs like “God Bless America” or rituals like the Pledge of Allegiance, as examples. Often, those symbols had a Christian bent, Hedstrom said, fueling another question that shapes public discourse today – a divide between “Americans who see America as a Christian country with a God-given mission in the world, and Americans who do not.”

“That fault line in our politics makes it hard to compromise and easier to see people who disagree with you politically not just as political opponents, but as evil,” he said. “That is obviously one of the big challenges we face as a country, and I think 9/11 is part of the story of how those cultural and religious divides grew.”

The 2001 Pew survey also showed that respondents had a more favorable view of Muslim Americans since the attacks, indicating that efforts by Bush and others to discourage discrimination were having some effect. Hedstrom said that effect continues today to some extent, but that discrimination and hate crimes against Muslim Americans remain troubling.

“We are still seeing examples of hate crimes and discrimination today, still living in that unfortunate reality,” he said “I do think there is increased visibility of the Muslim American community, and that perhaps the attacks created a certain amount of education about Muslim Americans and Islamic beliefs. Muslim Americans have been part of this country since the earliest settlements of people from Europe and Africa, but our education and beliefs about America have not always reflected that. So, though hate crimes and profiling have unfortunately continued, there has also been greater visibility, awareness and education.”

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Caroline Newman

Associate Editor Office of University Communications