How 9/11 Changed Our Culture

Newsweek, September 12, 2011 | Go to article overview
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How 9/11 Changed Our Culture

Mission Accomplished. Homeland. Ground Zero. Jack Bauer. The people, places, and phrases that were never the same after the towers fell.

How We Speak

Sept. 11 split the world into before and after. Before: we went to war against countries. After: we went to war against terror. Before: we scarfed french fries. After: we ate freedom fries with a side of patriotism. Before: we protected the country. After: we guarded the homeland. Washington, never the most literary city, set the vocabulary of the day. Colin Powell taught us the Pottery Barn rule. Dick Cheney declared the security state "the new normal." Irony was meant to be dead, but George W. Bush never got the memo. At least not when he strutted in front of his "Mission Accomplished" banner. And "ground zero," once geek speak used by nuclear scientists, came to stand for a gash in New York's heart.

What We Fear

The enemy used to be easy to identify: he was a James Bond villain, a snarling Nazi, a stone-faced Russian, an evil dictator with an army goading us into war. But now, in the boundary-blurring 21st century, evil is diffuse, everywhere. Bad guys who looked indistinguishable from every other guy put bombs in trucks, buildings, their shoes, their underwear, and what could we do? Nothing really: Worry. Look over our shoulders. "If you see something, say something." With each passing year, the threats seemed more insidious and less visible. China is reading our email now. Weather scares us. We distrust the earth, our enemies, and each other. Sept. 11 turned fear into a fact of life.

How We Keep Safe

We've packed our "disaster-preparedness kits," bought the duct tape and bottled water, got a backup prescription for Cipro, and do we feel any safer? Not in the slightest. We watched the Bush administration send the terror-threat level climbing from green to yellow to electric orange, and then we watched the Obama administration abandon the whole color code. We endure mandatory invasive security pat-downs and full-body scans just to fly home for the holidays. We've taken the battle to the enemy, wherever he might be hiding: in com-pounds in Abbottabad, in caves on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. But mostly we keep safe now the best way we can, by hunkering down, crossing our fingers, and hoping it doesn't happen again.

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