The newspapers are filled with images and recollections from the September 11,2001 terrorist attacks, but no one seems to care. The online news sources are warning of a new terrorist threat on the 10th anniversary this weekend, but no one seems terribly scared. Americans, even in New York, appear preoccupied with other problems. Americans are also tired of terrorist warnings and remembrances. College students who barely remember the September 11, 2001 attacks, do not view them as transformative in any way.

Even a few months ago, I had predicted much more public introspection and mourning on this solemn 10-year anniversary. Why is this not the case? Why is the public so apathetic about such a significant milestone?

The best answer is that the attacks were traumatic, horrifying, and enormously destructive, but they did not change very much. New York City continued to grow and thrive as a center of world capitalism. Washington D.C. remained the capital for the only truly global superpower, despite the economic difficulties of the last three years. Although the United States embarked on new wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other regions, most citizens (especially affluent professionals and college students) did not feel any pain. The lives of most Americans continued pretty much as they had before September 11, 2001. This was not a Pearl Harbor or Fort Sumter moment.

Some might view this analysis as evidence of American resilience. That is true. Terrorists can cause a lot of damage, but they really cannot challenge American power. Terrorism is a tactic with little long-term strategic value.

The frustrating element of American resilience is our society’s stubborn stagnation. We have changed very little since September 11, 2001, but maybe we really needed to change. Americans have continued to under-invest in infrastructure and education, as both crumble. Americans have burned ever-more fossil fuels, as our environment becomes disastrously degraded and erratic. Americans have continued to live beyond our means, as the piles of debt close off new economic opportunities.

The attacks of September 11, 2001 and their ten-year memory could inspire citizens to think in fresh ways about the long-term problems in our world, and the possibilities for new solutions. Courageous leaders would encourage these reflections as Abraham Lincoln did during the Civil War, Franklin Roosevelt did during the Depression and World War II, and Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy did during the Cold War. It is not the tragic events that re-shape a society, but the willingness of leaders to turn those events into productive experiences of self-sacrifice for larger purposes. For a decade we have lacked leaders of that caliber.

The last 10 years were a wasted decade. Americans refused to re-examine their behavior, they refused to investigate new possibilities, and they avoided collective sacrifice at all costs. Historians will look back on this period and condemn the pig-headedness of a people who were viciously attacked, and then stuck their heads in the sand. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were cover for a deeper denial that real behavioral change was necessary.

After a decade of such pathetic stagnation, why should anyone care about the 10th anniversary of September 11, 2001? Our best hope is that the necessary changes of the next decade merit more reflection and celebration when we reach the 20th anniversary.


This post originally appeared at

5 Responses to “Why 9/11 Doesn’t Matter”

  • John Abrams:

    your column is certainly more thoughtful than Krugman’s column that covered similar ground, and I think you hit the nail on the head. However, I think what you left unsaid is that, outside the plutocrats who benefit from the current system, most Americans (and probably most citizens of Western democracies, feel restless and uneasy not just because of terrorism and economic issues, but because they know, deep down, that we could use a leader to give us a sense of purpose, mission and sacrifice. If only Obama’s oration had been backed up by an FDR-style “new deal 2″ plan.

  • Nick:

    Let me begin by saying that Professor Suri’s class on the History of American Foreign Policy was the best class I took at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The University of Texas gained a great educator and an even better person.

    The reason Americans refused to accept shared sacrifices and neglected to alter their behavior in ways that would benefit the environment, the economy, and society was because nobody asked them to. The message following the attacks on September 11, 2001 remained quite the opposite. American’s framed the attack as an attack on the “American way of life.” To counter this attack, leaders and other influential Americans urged citizens to continue to go about their daily lives. This message continues today. When faced with another potential terrorist attack, the mayors of New York City and Washington D.C., urged citizens to remain vigilant, but to go about their daily routines. If John Wiley published a book titled “Defeating Terrorism for Dummies,” it would contain one sentence: “Go about your daily lives, and report anything suspicious.” Possibly to a fault, Americans performed these instructions laudably. Despite spending trillions of dollars to improve America’s defense, it was a hot dog vendor that notified authorities of a suspicious vehicle parked on Times Square. This hot dog vendor prevented Faisal Shahzad from achieving his goal of killing as many Americans as possible with a car bomb. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Americans learned that the only way to defeat the spread of fascism was to confront it with military force. For this reason, Americans displayed unparalleled eagerness to sacrifice everything from bacon grease to their own lives. The same “call to arms” never occurred post 9-11. Government leaders assured the American public that the military was ready and capable of defeating global terrorism. Citizens only had to sit back and watch it on television.

    • I think Nick is correct that American leaders failed to call upon citizens to make sacrifices for a larger collective good. Many citizens, especially college students, were looking for ways to contribute. Government encouragement to “return to your normal lives” discouraged sacrifice and changes in behavior. Why did our leaders refuse to lead? I think they feared any shift from “normal” and they did not have a clear idea about what they wanted to do, beyond retaliation and public security measures. Leaders lacked a broader social vision to strengthen our country. Leaders lacked the courage to improve our society in fighting a dangerous set of foes.

  • I agree, Bruce, that Americans have turned over too much power to corporate and other interests. American citizens need to demand more transparency in government, and they need to show that they care. We have ceded power, as much as it has been stolen away.

  • Bruce:

    Heads have been in the sand because corporate America promises buried treasure there, and then puts a foot on us to keep us engaged in the search. They control so much of our lives that they’ve become almost impossible to approach let alone regulate. Elections, tax codes, spending patterns and even (to a degree) social behavior are not without serious corporate interest and efforts to control. Like many Americans my first thoughts after 911 weren’t about my credit card debt or whether carbon emissions were too high. I was too worried that W would try to justify a scorch the earth response to the tragedy (he came close) and we would be hypnotized into thinking a massive military engagement would solve everything. In one of his final broadcasts, Studs Turkel commented shortly after the tragedy reminding his listeners to “question authority”. He was probably referring to our elected officials. Corporate authority is something else.

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About Jeremi Suri
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Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is a professor in the University's Department of History and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. Professor Suri is the author and editor of nine books on contemporary politics and foreign policy. Professor Suri's research and teaching have received numerous prizes. In 2007 Smithsonian Magazine named him one of America's "Top Young Innovators" in the Arts and Sciences. His writings appear widely in blogs and print media. Professor Suri is also a frequent public lecturer and guest on radio and television programs.