Commentary

The American Psyche One Year Later

By John Samples and Patrick Basham
This article was published in the Australian Financial Review, Sept. 11, 2002.

Most Americans vividly remember the morning of September 11, 2001. We remember the shock and disbelief upon hearing of the first crash, the solemn vigil at the office’s television, and the stunning report from a fellow employee that “the second one came down too.” We recall climbing up to the roof of the Cato Institute to see smoke billowing out of the great gash in the Pentagon. Most of all, we remember walking to the subway that afternoon, past the soldiers and the armored vehicles, and thinking: The world has changed forever; the nation will never be the same.

We were both right and wrong that day.

For a while everything was different. President Bush rose to the challenge and began to lead the nation into a war that enjoyed all but unanimous support. For a while normal politics ceased: the petty bickering, the constant striving for advantage, the audacious lying, the endless scandals, all vacated the public stage. The anthrax attacks on Congress added to a sense of siege.

Americans told pollsters they wished to give up some personal liberties to gain more security. Other surveys found that trust in the national government had skyrocketed, an odd result given its undeniable failure to protect the homeland from attack. Conservative commentators suggested with some satisfaction that the horrible attacks had unified Americans and restored our patriotism. So went the fall of 2001 in Washington, as the war in Afghanistan turned in America’s favor.

“Politics-as-usual” came back with the New Year. The politics surrounding the bankruptcy of the Enron Corporation revived the political left and debates over domestic policies. New regulations on campaign finance passed Congress. The Democrats began regularly criticizing the Bush administration. At some point in early summer, we realized that the moment had passed; the world had begun almost like it was before that terrible, sunny late summer morning.

Public opinion polls confirm the return to normalcy. Beginning in 1997, the public turned against expanding government regulation and redistribution. That skepticism about government continued during 2002. The brief increase in trust in government fell as quickly as it had risen. The public did support more spending on the military, but that trend long preceded September 11. The public’s willingness to trade civil liberties for security from terrorism shifted back to pre-attack levels. Not surprisingly, many Americans of all political stripes questioned the Bush administration’s expansion of executive authority in the domestic war on terrorism.

Some things have changed. Americans feel more vulnerable after the attacks. That feeling informs current debates about making war on Iraq. While many are skeptical of President Bush’s case for war, we all live with the knowledge that the unthinkable can and might happen. If terrorists brought down the World Trade Center, what might a tough thug (and head of state) achieve with weapons of mass destruction?

Americans have also become less guilty and yet more wary about the use of force in international affairs. Vietnam and its aftermath became a part of history over the past year. Americans are unlikely to feel any guilt or ambivalence about prosecuting the war against terror. At the same time, both elites and the general public became more careful about the use of force as evinced by the long debate about war with Iraq. We have become a more mature, democratic superpower.

We also recognize what America did not become after September 11. We did not become a nation bent on revenge against Islam and its adherents. Muslims live at peace in the United States, thanks in part to President Bush’s call for tolerance after the attacks. Average Americans express little or no antagonism to Muslims or to Islam. But Americans have rightly become more skeptical of our “allies” in Saudi Arabia, who more Americans see as part of the terrorism problem rather than part of its solution.

Today, the soldiers are gone from our streets, airports, and train stations. As are the American flags that adorned every other front lawn and car windshield last fall. Things have returned to normal. Yet we are a scarred nation, a nation no longer protected by vast oceans and awesome weapons. September 11 did not change America, and yet we know that things will never be the same.

John Samples is director and Patrick Basham senior fellow of the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute. Samples also is the editor of the new book, “James Madison and the Future of Limited Government.”