A few years ago Paula Schleis, staff writer for The Akron Beacon Journal asked readers, “How did your life change after Sept. 11, 2001... Are there changes in your personal habits? In your beliefs? In your attitude about anything, from traveling to politics? How do you feel about your country? About other countries? About mankind and your hopes for peace?
"Did the economic mess that followed cost you a job? Inspire you to start a business? Make you more charitable or teach you to watch your checkbook more closely? … What have you lost? What have you gained?”
The newspaper assembled a number of responses for a special section in the Sept. 11 edition.
I remember watching a cable news channel as the attacks occurred. While struggling with the horror of seeing the first plane hit the World Trade Center, the second plane struck.
Once the confirmed number of deaths rose into the thousands, pundits and politicians evoked American history’s only comparable catastrophe - the attack on Pearl Harbor. Of the 2,400 who were killed in that attack, fewer than 100 were civilians.
The vast majority of the 3,000 September 11 victims were civilians. Even a majority of the 125 people killed at the Pentagon were civilians. Nevertheless, the staggering number of 9/11 fatalities made such a comparison inevitable.
However, the same politicians and talking heads who conjured up comparisons to Pearl Harbor focused on the loss of life, but never mentioned how the American people responded.
Isoroku Yamamoto, Commander-in-Chief of the Combined Japanese Fleet during World War II, revealed an understanding of what Japan faced because of the sneak attack when he wrote in his diary, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”
Yamamoto, who planned the attack on Pearl Harbor, seemed to understand that no matter how long it would take, American victory was a certainty.
Whether he understood why the Americans would probably win in the end is unclear. Nevertheless, history reveals in vivid detail that the United States would prevail because every American contributed to the war effort.
During WWII, Americans drove their cars, fueled by a few gallons of gas each week, on bald tires. They grew victory gardens. Women’s nylon stockings were replaced by rayon stockings because nylon was reserved for parachutes and other war necessities. And in summer, women even wore leg makeup to mimic the seams in the nylon stockings they had to forgo.
Children collected scrap metal, rubber, and paper was recycled into weapons, ammunition, and tires for jeeps and tanks.
Meanwhile, youth organizations like the Minute Maids (a group similar to the Girl Scouts or the Camp Fire Girls) sold war stamps or bonds.
Schools and groups like the Minute Maids sponsored rallies, parades, and dances at which war stamps and bonds were sold.
Children and teens also volunteered with the Red Cross, wrapping bandages and putting together kits of items for children made homeless by the war. They knit sweaters, socks and blankets for soldiers. They helped to harvest crops whenever there was a shortage of workers. They even made model airplanes spotters used to recognize enemy aircraft.
Everyone participated. Everyone sacrificed.
Contrast this with the American response to 9/11. After the attack, President Bush had a golden opportunity to unite the nation in a noble cause.
He could have summoned Americans to break their addiction to oil, since oil finances all the terrorism originating from the Middle East.
Instead, he told us to maintain the status quo. In a speech on September 20 to a joint session of Congress, Bush said “It is my hope that in the months and years ahead life will return almost to normal. We'll go back to our lives and routines and that is good.”
He was urging us to change nothing. At that moment Bush proved to be incapable of anything more than sucking up to a self-indulgent spoiled constituency.
His message was “If we change our way of life, they win!” The message should have been “If we stop financing terrorism at the gas pump like junkies making drug dealers rich, each of you wins. And the nation wins.”
In the same September 20 speech, the President defined his foreign policy as a false dichotomy when he said, “Every nation in every region now has a decision to make: Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” (Stephen Colbert would often parody this with remarks like, “Either you are for the Iraq War - or you hate America.”)
It is not as if Bush was clueless how divided the nation already was. After Al Gore conceded the 2000 election, Bush said “Our nation must rise above a house divided... I know America wants reconciliation and unity. I know Americans want progress. And we must seize this moment and deliver.”
The President is obliged to protect the nation from enemies both foreign and domestic. But the Bush administration turned the enemy switch to 'on' at all the wrong times. As a result, this "You’re with us or against us" mindset also became the Bush administration’s approach to domestic issues, not to mention a hallmark of rightwing politics.
Then, the Bush administration took advantage of the nation's fear to start the Iraq War.
The fear factor also allowed for such un-American excesses as the reactionary passage of the ill-conceived Patriot Act, a statute so contrary to our nation’s principles that even a staunch conservative like the late William Safire expressed his outrage in a2002 New York Times editorial titled “You are a Suspect.”
But when it came to milking the attacks for political gain, nobody outdid Rudy Giuliani.
In 1994, Giuliani told a forum "Freedom is about authority. Freedom is about the willingness of every single human being to cede to lawful authority a great deal of discretion about what you do."
Seven years later, Giuliani's Orwellian understanding of freedom was validated by the Patriot Act.
In 2007, Giuliani claimed to have been at the Ground Zero site "as often, if not more, than most workers.” He claimed, “I was there working with them. I was exposed to exactly the same things they were exposed to. So in that sense, I'm one of them."
Some 9/11 workers objected to those claims. Their objections were justified because the claims were nonsense.
A week after Giuliani made the claim, The New York Times reported that in more than three months after the attack, he spent a total of 29 hours at the site.
Some recovery workers spent that much time at the site in two days.
Giuliani was also eager to buttress Bush’s call to inaction when he instructed New Yorkers to “Show your confidence… Show you’re not afraid. Go to restaurants. Go shopping!”
The result of all this was a cartoonish patriotism, measured not by what a citizen sacrificed for the nation but, rather, by how little one changed anything, or by how many “Support Our Troops” ribbon magnets one had on his SUV.
It's been noted that if WWII-era Americans, the generation that defined national sacrifice, behaved as Americans continue to behave since 9/11, the nation’s official language today might be German.
The 2001 attacks changed everything for the victims and their families, intrepid rescue workers and their families, and of course Americans fighting and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan and their families. But for the other 300 million of us, September 11 didn’t change much of anything.
However, it gave rise to inconveniences at the airport. And we briefly had to endure directives from manipulative media demagogues and countless ribbon magnet patriots that Americans must call French fries “freedom fries.”
Still, Americans are extraordinary people and, as such, would have made sacrifices. We would have done the right thing. But at that moment, the United States needed a courageous president, politically astute and sufficiently intelligent to guide the nation in the necessary direction. We needed a president like Franklin Roosevelt, who united the nation in a common purpose.
Instead, we had George W. Bush.
He urged Americans to change nothing, and we came through.
The September 11 catastrophe was the perfect opportunity - not to mention the perfect reason - to unite the nation.
The United States was already polarized by an election in which the winner was the first presidential candidate since Benjamin Harrison in 1888, and only the fourth in American history, to lose the national popular vote - in Bush’s case, by more than a half million votes - but win (sort of) the Electoral College.
Given the circumstances, it behooved him to behave in a less confrontational and divisive manner. Instead, Bush took a nation already divided and erected an ideological wall that remains intact and impenetrable to this day.
After 9/11, the American way of life stayed pretty much the same.
As for this writer, the only real change has been a sadness and cynicism born of knowing that after September 11, 2001, we could have emulated the nation’s greatest generation instead of letting our government use our outrage to invade a nation that had nothing to do with September 11. We could have honored that generation’s commitment by making the necessary sacrifices to achieve positive change in our time.
Instead, we went shopping.
For love of country, we went for a drive.