Did 9/11 permanently change life in the US? More Americans say so than ever before
The sense among Americans that the Sept. 11 attacks permanently changed life in the USA has grown, not faded – as the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches and a new peril threatens the nation.
In a USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll, those surveyed call the COVID-19 pandemic a more dangerous challenge to the country than the terrorist strikes in 2001. But by a wider margin than ever, 60%-38%, they say 9/11 changed Americans' lives forever.
Even those who were children then can instantly recall when they heard the news of the attacks on New York and the Pentagon and how they felt. Nearly everyone remembers the shock and fear, the sense of national peril and national unity.
Most say the peril persists, though the unity has fractured.
"It's still hard to talk about," says Angela Everhart, 41, who was then a college student in Ohio. Before that moment, she hadn't given a thought to terrorism. She called her mother, then talked to her stepfather, a Marine. "He made me feel like it was going to be the beginning to a new war that was going to be much bigger than just that day."
She says, "I remember all of it."
Nearly everyone who was at least 15 years old in 2001 has memories of that day, the poll found. Eighty-five percent say it had a big impact on their generation. Almost two-thirds say it had a big impact on their own lives.
By 22 percentage points, they say the attacks permanently changed the way Americans live. That's a bigger majority than the 9-point margin (54%-45%) in a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll on the first anniversary, in 2002, and bigger than the 17-point margin (58%-41%) on the 10th anniversary, in 2011.
Those who were youngest then, or not even born, say they felt the change most strongly. By nearly 3-1, 72%-26%, those under 35 see permanent changes. Among seniors, those 65 and older, that ratio was 52%-46%.
The poll of 1,000 registered voters, taken by landline and cellphone Aug. 19-23, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
Matthew Hernandez, who was a high school junior in Jacksonville, Florida, a city with a major naval air station, saw the influence of 9/11 on the career choices of his schoolmates. "A lot of people that I knew in school got, like, hyperpatriotic," says Hernandez, 34, director of programming for Street Poets, a nonprofit group in Los Angeles. He was called in the survey. "I would say probably more than 50% of my graduating class went into some facet of the armed forces, and a lot of that was due to what happened on 9/11."
Within weeks of hijacked airplanes striking the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, President George W. Bush ordered bombing attacks on al-Qaida outposts in Afghanistan. This week, four presidents later, the U.S. deployment there ended with the withdrawal ordered by President Joe Biden, a chaotic bookend to the longest war in American history.
The Sept. 11 attacks provided the impetus for U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. It led to the creation of the sprawling Department of Homeland Security and a federal agency to enforce much tougher screening at airports. It prompted some policymakers to argue the United States should be more engaged in the world and others to argue the nation needed to retreat to its own borders.
For some, the impact has been personal.
"We were fearful for a while about going into large crowds, (and) I still have some overlay of being a little bit concerned," Patricia Holliday, 64, a retired human services manager from Tallahassee, Florida, says in a follow-up interview. "If I go to somewhere, I'm going to look and see what my escape route is or something like that. I don't want to be trapped in a situation."
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'It's like a four-way race'
The Sept. 11 attacks were a seismic event in U.S. history, but Americans rank it second on the list of big challenges the United States has faced in modern times. COVID-19, which has cost more than 642,000 lives in the USA and is not under control, is first.
In the poll, 35% say the pandemic is the worst thing that has happened to the nation in the past 20 years. Twenty-seven percent cite 9/11. Tied at 10% each are three other challenges: the Jan. 6 insurrection, mass shootings and extreme weather and climate change.
Everhart, a cosmetologist from Canton, Ohio, and a political independent, struggled to decide which to choose.
"Every time you hear about a mass shooting – I have children – it pulls at my heartstrings," she says. When the Capitol was stormed by a mob Jan. 6, "I was watching as it all went down, and then my kids came home, and it's like I don't even know how to explain that to them." She still gets emotional when talking about 9/11. "COVID has been hard, too," she says.
"It's tough; I mean, it's like a four-way race," says Hernandez, a Democrat, who settled on mass shootings as the most troubling challenge. "That is something that doesn't seem to have a stopping point. Other things seemed like, potentially, could and will with time have stopping points."
On this question, there is a sharp partisan divide that has become familiar in American politics.
- Republicans rank 9/11 first among the five challenges the nation has faced and Jan. 6 last, cited by just 1%.
- Democrats ranked 9/11 last, putting COVID-19 first and Jan. 6 second, cited by 22%.
There is also a racial division. Black people, who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, are more likely than white people to rank COVID-19 as the biggest challenge, 42% compared with 34%. While white people rank the 9/11 attacks as a close second, at 31%, Black people put it last, at 9%.
Holliday, a Democrat, sees COVID-19 and climate change as connected and the nation's most serious threat. "We can survive a mass shooting," she says. "Jan. 6, we can handle that. But if we don't get COVID under control and the weather under control, we may not have a planet."
Chad Bayse, 42, of Rose Mount, Minnesota, an attorney and a Republican, says 9/11 has had the most impact on the USA. "I think that's the most historically significant event of the century," he says. "It's geared our foreign policy in that direction and the Middle East and sort of shaped world events, our standing in the world, our fiscal health and position. ... Obviously, it affected my life. I joined the military." He served in the U.S. Navy and was deployed to Iraq.
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Domestic terrorism rises as a concern
Some attitudes have changed in the past 20 years.
Domestic terrorism is seen as a bigger threat than foreign terrorism, by 56% to 38%. Two decades ago, the idea of domestic terrorism seemed so remote that polls generally didn't ask about it. Now, among those under 35, 66% call domestic terrorism the bigger threat, about 15 points higher than their elders.
Among Democrats, 81% see domestic terrorism as the bigger threat. Among Republicans, a 53% majority see foreign terrorism as the bigger threat. Independents split 47%-47% on the question.
Black people, by 6-1, 79%-13%, call domestic terrorism the bigger threat. Though a majority of white people agree, the divide is closer, 53%-41%.
"Really, in the last 20 years, we have not had a significant number of foreign attacks on the U.S.," says Leif Hassell, 46, a public health administrator from Little Rock, Arkansas, and a Democrat. "We have had a hugely significant number of attacks every year from within the U.S."
Teresa Powers, 60, of Queen Creek, Arizona, a Republican, scoffs at the idea of domestic terrorism. "Where has there been domestic terrorism with our own people?" she demands. "No, I would say foreign terrorism is more of a bigger threat."
Many Americans remain braced for more terrorist attacks. Half of those surveyed say more acts of terrorism on the USA in the next few weeks are very or somewhat likely. That's lower than in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 but higher than in a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll in 2011, on the 10th anniversary of the attacks.
Americans' confidence in the U.S. government to protect its citizens from terrorism has eroded. A year after the 2001 attacks, 80% said they had a great deal or a fair amount of confidence in the government's ability to do that. Ten years later, 75% held that view.
Now Americans are closely divided: 51% have confidence, and 47% have little or none.
"There's certain things that you remember throughout your entire life, no matter what age you are," says Ryan Haugh of Camphill, Pennsylvania, who was 8 in 2001. When he arrived home from school, it was the first time he had seen his father cry. "I just remember how close everyone became after that, like you felt like one big family. And it seemed like it was all short-lived."
Twenty years ago.
Contributing: Matthew Brown, Mabinty Quarshie