Panel: 9/11 changed how America viewed itself and its core values

In the days that followed the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush addressed the nation, framing the incident as an attack on freedom and democracy — both concepts that are widely recognized as pillars of the American way of life — and an act of war.

Twenty years later, what are the repercussions of that declaration?

The Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict and the Center on the Future of War at Arizona State University co-sponsored a discussion Wednesday in which they asked panelists to consider that question, and in particular, whether and how the promise and pursuit of freedom and democracy in the United States has changed since 9/11.

“I would say no other event in the last 20 years has left such an indelible mark on the national consciousness … nor had such enduring global repercussions. And I think that’s saying something, given what we’ve been through these past few years,” said John Carlson, interim director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict, itself a byproduct of the attacks, having been established at the behest of then-newly minted ASU President Michael Crow to act as an institution that would foster inquiry about the role of religion in modern society and geopolitics more broadly.

Carlson moderated the panel discussion, “Freedom and Democracy at Home,” part one of the two-part series “Freedom and Democracy Since 9/11,” which continued Thursday with part two, “Freedom, Democracy and U.S. Foreign Policy.”

Wednesday’s discussion on domestic questions of freedom and democracy included Anand Gopal, an award-winning journalist and an assistant research professor at the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict and ASU’s Center on the Future of War; Craig Calhoun, a social theorist and historical and comparative sociologist and a university professor of social sciences at ASU; and Rozina Ali, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine who is part of an ASU research team investigating the lived experience of post-9/11 mass detention and surveillance.

All of the panelists were personally affected by 9/11 — Calhoun and Gopal having been in New York City the day the attacks occurred, and Ali, who had never set foot in the city, woke up on the opposite coast to news of the attacks on TV and a frightened father.

“Immediately, he was frightened,” she said, “not just because of the terrorist attack, but frightened about what the government response would be. I distinctly remember him saying aloud, ‘Please don’t let it be Muslims.’”

Both Ali and Calhoun agreed that the Bush administration’s decision to call what happened “war” was critical — and unfortunate.

Labeling 9/11 as an act of war rather than a crime, for example, Calhoun said, “set in motion responses that were troublesome.”

“It wasn’t just the day that completely transformed the country,” Ali added, “but how we responded to it that has left us with really lasting changes.”

Changes, such as the passing of the Patriot Act, that were made in the name of protecting Americans’ personal freedoms. Not only would the efficacy of such changes eventually come under question, but as Gopal discovered when he moved to Afghanistan in 2008, so would their necessity.

In the villages and countrysides where Gopal interviewed people, trying to get an understanding of why they would fight for the Taliban, he was met with blank stares when he asked about 9/11.

“They had no idea what I was talking about,” he said. “Or they would tell me stories that had absolutely nothing to do with geopolitics. They would tell me about the strongman in their village who was harassing them (to join the Taliban), or that they had absolutely no work. Reasons that had nothing to do with my understanding of the war on terror.”

In other words, reasons that had nothing to do with hating American freedom or democracy. In fact, they had their own questions for Gopal: Why did the U.S. invade us? Do they hate us because we are Muslim?

The question of who “us” and “them” were in this war on terror was also a complicated one.

“U.S. troops operated as if al-Qaida and the Taliban were one big conglomerate,” Gopal said. “You were either with us or against us. There was no third category. But there was a third category, which was people who were just trying to live their lives.”

The effect all that confusion had on Americans’ idea of freedom was that it became more about individual freedom than collective freedom, the panelists agreed. And the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and other such national security measures as a result of the war on terror emphasized that.

“When 9/11 happened, I bought into the narrative that they did in fact hate us for our freedoms,” Ali said. “It wasn’t until after the war warped what it meant to have freedoms in this country that I started questioning that narrative because it became very clear that … civil liberties and constitutional rights were not being afforded to everyone.”

In particular, immigrant and Muslim communities that were surveilled and detained, sometimes without any charges, following 9/11.

Ali continued, “The goal of the war on terror was freedom. … And it was so amorphous that it actually lost meaning, to the point where freedom is now defined in terms of individual rights rather than community. We lost our vision of what community is.”

One notable way we see the effects of that today, Ali said, is in Americans’ struggle to combat the pandemic, something that requires camaraderie and collective action but which has been thwarted by a lack of solidarity when it comes to such precautionary measures as mask wearing.

And as Calhoun pointed out, the proliferation of mass surveillance that immediately followed 9/11 echoes today in tactics that are used to police all Americans, but especially Black Americans.

“The policing of Black Americans in ways that led to the struggles of the last couple years was greatly accelerated during the war on terror,” Calhoun said. “And also the war on drugs. We love declaring war on things in big but futile ways.”

“Is this how democracies die?” Carlson asked the panelists.

“The question implies we had a lot of (democracy) before,” Calhoun replied. “I prefer to think of it not as an on/off switch but as forward or backsliding. … America was not really born a robust democracy, but it was born with some mechanisms in place that allow progress over (time).”

For example, the Civil War was a backslide, but the end of slavery it brought about was a step forward. Five years later, in 1870, the 15th Amendment granted the right to vote to men of all races, but not to women. That would come in 1920 with the ratification of the 19th Amendment.

“So it’s two steps forward, one step back,” Calhoun continued. “But net forward movment. We’re in a backward step now, for sure. … I hope we will reverse that, but it’s not an easy challenge.”

Top illustration by Alex Davis/ASU

Emma Greguska
emma.greguska@asu.edu