NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw called it “one of the darkest days in American history.” CBS News anchor Dan Rather opened his evening broadcast by saying, “You will remember this day as long as you live.” And the only American who could not possibly feel the Earth shudder that day, astronaut Frank Culbertson, looked down on his home planet from the International Space Station and said: “The world changed today.”
It was Sept. 11, 2001. Now, 20 years later, many questions about the terrorist attacks — about intelligence failures, the role of Saudi Arabia, the preparedness of this country in failing to imagine the unimaginable — still are unanswered. But two questions remain, both of them perplexing and unsettling: Was Culbertson right that the world changed that day? And how well do we remember that day?
Those questions are particularly poignant as the United States arrives at an important juncture, an anniversary that tests the country’s famously brief historical attention span and marks an event that roared back to top of mind and relevance with the chaos that followed the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, the swift resurgence of Taliban power and rule, and the stunning phenomenon of American dependence on the Taliban for security assistance during the rushed evacuation.
In some ways, the Sept. 11 attacks — which occurred before about a quarter of the US population was even born and before about 100 million of us were old enough to remember — have moved from lived experience to history. In other ways, as the public horror at the debacle on the Kabul airport tarmac and the scenes of the Taliban surge demonstrated, the attacks on Washington and New York and in the air over rural Pennsylvania that left 2,977 dead two decades ago have gained a renewed freshness.
“The coincidence of Afghanistan catastrophe with the Sept. 11 anniversary will bring it from back of mind to front of mind,” said Nancy Gibbs, director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. “We went to war in Afghanistan because of 9/11 and we may be recreating a safe haven for the next 9/11. Sept. 11 is like the cicadas. It will be very much back.”
And yet when Marie Hardin, the dean of the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications at Penn State, asked her university administration colleagues earlier this year how they were planning to commemorate Sept. 11, she encountered a sea of blank faces — even though she was standing a mere 98 miles from Shanksville, where 40 passengers and flight crew stormed the hijackers in the cockpit of United Airlines Flight 93 and brought down the Boeing 757-222, whose intended target was the US Capitol or the White House, in a field.
“It was a reflection on our times,” Hardin said. “So many things have come at us since then. It was a life-altering event, and it is kind of amazing how little buildup there has been to honor those who passed 20 years ago. It’s kind of getting lost in the Delta variant. But there’s also some well- placed concern and sensitivity now about discrimination and bias. We don’t want to stir up anti-Muslim sentiment right now.”
In the end, Penn State created plans for a commemoration, and the Flight 93 National Memorial, part of the National Park Service, set out several days of lectures and memorials that culminated Saturday in a solemn reading of the names of the victims, the placing of a wreath at the memorial wall listing those who perished, and speeches by former president George W. Bush and Vice President Kamala Harris.
History doesn’t only happen once. It occurs in the moment, shaping one year or decade or perhaps a generation. But then it reoccurs, repeatedly, in memory. Shelves of books have been written about how the Civil War lives in American memory, scholarly articles have been published about World War I in French memory, and movies and books by the score have sought to ensure that the Nazi genocide of the Jews in World War II is never lost to world memory.
But perhaps because this always has been a country more focused on the future than on the past — perhaps because oftentimes we mythologize history to create a past we feel is worthy of us — American memory has tended to be an elusive thing. We remember, however romantically, the generation of the Founders. Southerners remember, however inaccurately, the glories of the “Lost Cause.”
But mostly we forget.
The closest analogue to Sept. 11 — the one commentators and historians alike reached for in the hours after the two planes hit the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan — was Dec. 7, 1941. Both dates represent unprovoked sneak attacks on the country. Both set in motion broader military struggles. Both defined our national character even as they revealed our national character.
And both The Boston Globe and the Globe and Mail newspaper published in Toronto planted huge “Day of Infamy” headlines across their front pages, painful but poignant allusions (though not quite accurate ones) to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s landmark speech to Congress after Pearl Harbor declaring, “Yesterday, Dec. 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy.”
But the 1961 analogue to this week’s anniversary — the 20th anniversary of the attack that brought the country into World War II — provides us with some perspective on our own attitudes about the terrorist attacks of 2001, and on our own historical memory.
The astonishing fact is that the 20th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor — occurring at a time when Japan was firmly established as an American Cold War ally — was all but ignored. Though Elvis Presley performed a concert to raise money for the USS Arizona memorial to the 1,177 lost on that battleship in the Dec. 7 attacks, President John F. Kennedy, himself a veteran of combat in the Pacific theater of that conflict, reflected the national outlook in looking away — or more properly, in looking ahead.
“We face entirely different challenges on this Pearl Harbor Day,” he said in remarks to the AFL-CIO convention in Florida on Dec. 7, 1961. “In many ways the challenges are more serious, and in a sense long-reaching, because I don’t think that any of us had any doubt in those days that the United States would survive and prevail and our strength increase.”
The memory of “the Pearl Harbor attack had shrunk and changed,” as University of Southern California historian Roger Dingman noted, and that may be because 1961 was itself a year of crisis. The newly inaugurated president ordered an operation at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs almost universally described as a “fiasco,” he was outdone by the verbal pugilism of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev at a summit in Vienna, he was forced to advise Americans to consider building shelters to protect themselves from nuclear fallout, and then he found himself reacting to the construction of the Berlin Wall.
Pearl Harbor, to be sure, never faded in the minds of those who lived through it, or who lost loved ones there. It had, after all, triggered a major mobilization in the country that cost unimaginable expense, led to the death of more than 400,000 Americans, and transformed the role of the United States on the world stage.
But for those who were born following World War II, Dec. 7 soon became merely another event of history — more recent, to be sure, than the firing on Fort Sumter that began the Civil War in 1861, or the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, or the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, but firmly in the past nonetheless.
For all the 20-years-later similarities of Pearl Harbor and Sept. 11, the differences are stark as well — and instructive.
“Dec. 7 was the beginning of a shared national sacrifice whereas Sept. 11 triggered deeply divisive conflicts,” said University of Missouri historian Jay Sexton, born in 1978. “After Dec. 7, life changed fundamentally. After Sept. 11, the national purpose seemed to be to go shopping. To the extent that life changed, it was largely for the people at the bottom of the social order who went to war. The changes — the work — were outsourced.’’
And the brief upwelling of national unity — or calls for it — faded.
“It was an unprecedented tragedy and out of it came an unprecedented opportunity,” said Democratic Representative Seth Moulton of Salem, a Marine decorated for his valor in combat in Iraq. “Historians will look back on the post-Sept. 11 years as years of lost opportunity. We had the chance to unite the country but instead we had never-ending wars and division.”
Even so, the transformations in American culture wrought by the terrorist attacks persist.
Civil liberties were constricted by legislation that bore the title of the Patriot Act. Wars were begun in Afghanistan and Iraq, which together cost nearly four times as many lives as the Sept. 11 attacks. Security barriers were erected around national monuments and government buildings, even at sports venues. Waves of fear cascaded across the country as Washington assessed the danger to a population that grew to understand (but now largely has forgotten) the distinction among green, blue, orange, and red threat levels. Americans reevaluated their place in the world. And they asked — this phrase floated into conversations from coast to coast, and was a preoccupation in the White House — why “they hated us so much.”
Bush offered his answer in his speech to a joint session of Congress 19 days after the attacks:
“They hate what they see right here in this chamber: a democratically elected government,” he said. “Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.”
The Sept. 11 attacks shaped the Bush presidency, and it is not too much to say that they shaped Bush himself. It gave his presidency a purpose beyond mere politics, and it grafted a clarified purpose onto his life.
For all the drama and destruction of that day — for all its horror and its heroics — Bush’s outlook may have been affected most deeply when, during the president’s appearance in New York three days after the attack, Arlene Howard handed him the Port Authority Police badge of her son, George Howard, who though off-duty on Sept. 11 nonetheless rushed to the World Trade Center and perished when the Twin Towers collapsed.
“Bush told her that America would move on, but that it would not forget,” said Andrew H. Card, the White House chief of staff who was standing with the president. “He made that commitment for me, too.”
Days later, in that address on Capitol Hill, Bush held the officer’s badge, number 1012, and 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. Even grief recedes with time and grace. But our resolve must not pass. Each of us will remember what happened that day, and to whom it happened. We’ll remember the moment the news came — where we were and what we were doing. Some will remember an image of a fire, or a story of rescue. Some will carry memories of a face and a voice gone forever.
“And I will carry this: It is the police shield of a man named George Howard, who died at the World Trade Center trying to save others. It was given to me by his mom, Arlene, as a proud memorial to her son. This is my reminder of lives that ended, and a task that does not end.’’
But what did end — and it is impossible to place a date on the ending — was the primacy of Sept. 11 in the American consciousness.
“Those attacks seemed like the biggest thing that would ever happen in our life, and the only vestige is that we were until recently still committed to staying in Afghanistan,” said Christopher Beem, managing director of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State. “All of us who lived through it thought it would be like Kennedy’s assassination, where everyone remembered where they were and their lives would be changed for it. We may still remember where we were, but that’s about it. None of it persisted.”
It didn’t persist in large measure because so much else intruded.
The two decades that followed were crowded hours, and what filled them crowded out Sept. 11.
There was the Great Recession. There was failure in Iraq, followed by the failure in Afghanistan. The election of the first Black president. The election, in Donald Trump, of a disrupter and outsider to the White House. The first female presidential nominee, and then the first female vice president. Global warming. Battles over Supreme Court nominees. The death of George Floyd, and the racial reckoning that followed. The #MeToo movement. The coronavirus pandemic. The vaccine wars.
“For some of us, 9/11 is going to be vividly imprinted on our minds forever,” said Lucy Dalglish, dean of the Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. “But for younger people, and I deal with them all the time, it just doesn’t register. That’s because they are bombarded all the time with information about other things.”
It comes in hourly, or minute-by-minute, bursts, a torrential onslaught of news. “We’ve never had an event like this pandemic with 24/7 news coverage and outlets with choose-your-own viewpoints,” said Allen V. Koop, a Dartmouth College historian of medicine.
More than ever, news today thrives on the new. And for the past 18 months, the news, and the new, have revolved around the virus and the vaccine. The American death toll from COVID now is 300 times as large as that of the terrorist attacks.
“In the moments that followed Sept. 11 we knew it was an epochal event,” said Jeremy A. Greene, the director of the Institute of the History of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University. “But the pandemic is an event that has reshaped our world in ways we don’t yet understand. It has thoroughly reinvented everyday life and our experience of time and history. We will remember this as a defining event.”
But another reason that Sept. 11 has receded into the past is an American success story. Since the original attacks, there has been only one Al Qaeda-inspired attack on American soil (the 2019 shooting that killed three at Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida) and two unsuccessful attempts (by figures known colloquially as the Shoe Bomber and the Underwear Bomber).
“We have been remarkably successful in battling terrorism in the homeland because the system has worked,” said David Schanzer, director of Duke University’s Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security. “These terrorism groups still exist but are focused more on local matters — gaining power in their own regions as opposed to going after the ‘head of the snake,’ the United States. The number of individuals with the hope and capability to strike us is substantially lower.’’
Through it all the view of American authorities has been altered substantially, for the terror attacks changed the way we think about outside threats. “People felt afterward that we had a failure of imagination,” said Geoffrey Cowan, director of the Center on Communication Leadership & Policy at the University of Southern California. “We now know we must imagine the unimaginable.”
One of the unimaginables was a pandemic that began in a Chinese city nearly 7,400 miles from Boston.
“I’m wondering whether we would be thinking more about this anniversary if we didn’t have a pandemic going on,” said Dalglish, of the Merrill College of Journalism. “Twenty years ago I was scared out of my mind. But we have replaced it with something else to worry about.”
History hurries on. A decade from now, the attacks will be 30 years past. And the pandemic will itself be, the world dearly hopes, a fading memory.
In December 1971, 30 years from the wreckage at Pearl Harbor, a civil war raged in Cambodia (a French colony that in 1941 had just been occupied by the Japanese army) while India and Pakistan (restive parts of the British Empire in 1941) were at war. The lesson of history is that history — even breathtaking, transformative events such as Pearl Harbor and Sept. 11 — is overtaken by more history. It sounds like a truism because it is so inescapably true. We are forced to move on by what comes next. And so we do.
David M. Shribman, former Washington bureau chief for the Globe, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and scholar-in-residence at Carnegie Mellon University.