Remembering September 11: How America Has Changed

"Nothing will ever be the same" was our constant refrain after the terrorist attacks. But how different are we today, really?

9/11 flag eyes
Brian Stauffer for Reader’s Digest

In remembering September 11, we question: For good or bad, what has changed in America?

We have accepted less privacy.
Perhaps the most visible intrusions on privacy are the full-body scanners now being rolled out at airports around the country, although about two thirds of Americans say they’re willing to put up with such personal impositions to prevent terrorism.

Other infringements upon this fundamental American privilege are less apparent. Shortly after 9/11, Congress passed the Patriot Act, which expanded federal officials’ powers to keep tabs on our personal information, from credit card use to cell phone calls to car travel. Today, 3,984 federal, state, and local organizations take part in domestic counterterrorism efforts; the National Security Agency alone has about 30,000 people eavesdropping on 1.7 billion intercepted e-mails and other communications every day. In June, the FBI gave significant new powers to its 14,000 agents to search databases, screen household trash, and use stakeout teams to investigate “persons of interest.”

The upside: greater law enforcement success. Five billion mobile phones are now in use around the world, and 95 percent of users keep their phone within a yard of themselves at all times. “That’s the same as saying the location of 95 percent of these people can be determined anytime,” says Fred Cate, director of the Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research at Indiana University. “Ten years ago, law enforcement would put a tail on someone; today, they call the cell phone company.”

Financial institutions are also huge repositories of easily traceable, and accessible, data: Emboldened by the expanded guidelines, the Treasury Department has subpoenaed records of millions of financial transactions. “We can match up money to find organized-crime financing much easier, and it works all the time,” Cate says.

But are we really safer? According to the Breakthrough Institute, a public-policy think tank, only two plots against the United States have been foiled because of the increased snooping allowed by the Patriot Act. Dozens of others, the report concluded, “were broken open due to the combination of well-deployed undercover agents, information from citizen or undercover informants, and tips from foreign intelligence agencies” — in other words, old-fashioned gumshoe work.

Next: Are we closer to energy independence? »

9/11
Brian Stauffer for Reader’s Digest

We want to achieve energy independence more than ever.
From 2001 to early 2009, most Americans favored conservation over more energy production — but with the continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and revolutions sweeping the Middle East, we’ve reversed our priorities. Although 87 percent of Americans believe the Gulf of Mexico hasn’t fully recovered from the 2010 oil spill, 69 percent favor increased offshore drilling. And while nearly two out of three Americans want more alternative energy development, 47 percent said (even right after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant meltdown) that nuclear power’s benefits outweigh its risks, compared with the 38 percent who disagreed.

But we’ve made little progress. While we are buying more fuel-efficient cars and we’ve discovered huge new domestic gas and oil fields, “the United States has not become more energy independent in the past decade,” says Charles Ebinger, director of the Energy Security Initiative at the Brookings Institution. “We’re still importing about 50 percent of our oil, and that’s likely to increase.”

Next: Are we more Islamophobic? »

9/11
Brian Stauffer for Reader’s Digest

We are less tolerant of Islam.
Despite President Obama’s assurance on last year’s anniversary of 9/11 that “we are not at war with Islam,” a recent Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life poll found that only 30 percent of Americans hold a favorable view of the Muslim religion — a sizable falloff from the 41 percent who held a similar opinion in 2005. Thirty-five percent of Americans believe Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence, and more than half think Muslims “aren’t speaking out enough against potential terrorist attacks,” according to a Rasmussen poll. Last year, the proposed development of a Muslim cultural center two blocks from Ground Zero led to widespread protests against the project.

But not all of us take a dim view. “The events of 9/11 hardened Islamophobic ideas among some — but have also stimulated greater interest in and understanding of Islam among others,” says Mahmoud Ayoub, of the Duncan Black Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. The Macdonald Center launched the first Islam chaplaincy program in the world about five years ago to provide Muslim chaplains to hospitals, the military, and elsewhere. Still, only about a dozen imams now serve in the U.S. armed forces. (In contrast, there are more than 800 Christian and Jewish chaplains in the Navy alone.)

Student enrollment in Arabic language classes surged after 9/11 and has tripled since, according to a survey of 2,500 colleges and universities. More college students now study Arabic than Russian. And there’s this: The 2010 Miss USA title went to Rima Fakih of Michigan, the first time an Arab American has won the crown.

Next: Are we more supportive of our military? »

9/11
Brian Stauffer for Reader’s Digest

We’re more respectful of the uniformed services.
In the past decade, Americans have had more confidence in the military than in any other federal institution, according to a Gallup annual poll; more than three quarters of Americans say they have great confidence in the troops.

The kudos extend to other uniformed public servants as well. “After 9/11, there was a spike in American pride in all our uniformed services, including firefighters and police officers,” says Peter Feaver, a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University who has written books on society’s views of the military. “They were newly relevant to your daily life — people realized that ‘these guys are protecting me.’ ”

But we’re failing our soldiers when they come home. The recession has hit veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan particularly hard: Their unemployment rate is at least three points higher than the national average and climbs to nearly 20 percent for male vets under the age of 24, according to a report from the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee. Military experts blame a “crazy vet” stereotype that has persisted since at least the Vietnam War. To counter the prejudice, some companies, like Siemens, are renewing their commitment to the Veterans Preferences Act, enacted in 1944 and last modified in 1997, which encourages businesses to give special consideration to military veterans when filling jobs.

Next: Are we kinder to our fellow Americans? »

9/11
Brian Stauffer for Reader’s Digest

We volunteer more.
After 9/11, the number of Americans who did volunteer work rose steadily, growing to nearly 29 percent by 2005, up from around 20 percent in the late 20th century. The 63 million Americans who donate their time today average 34.2 hours a year, providing $169 billion worth of services annually, free of charge.

And aging Americans’ second acts will increase those numbers even more. “Seventy-six million people will be looking for an ‘encore career’ soon, and engaging them in highly skilled opportunities will be crucial,” says Heather Peeler, chief strategy officer at the Corporation for National and Community Service. “We’re already seeing nonprofits gearing up to accommodate baby boomers.” Match your skills to a volunteer effort by visiting mygooddeed.org or serve.gov.

Next: How your lives changed »

How did 9/11 change you? We asked our Facebook fans—but tell us your story in the comments below.

≫ I pay more attention to the people around me when I am in a crowd. Jane Carder

≫ We now avoid air travel because of the hassles involved. Terri DuVal Riffle

≫ I honor military, police, firefighters, and other service people and try to remember to say thank you when I see them. Andrea Pandeloglou Smolin

≫ I was 14 and could not wrap my mind around the tragedy. Years later, we went to see Flight 93 in theaters, and I finally cried. Stephani Blair

≫ I had been to the Twin Towers in 1984, so I often think it could have been that day I was there. I moved closer to my family. Dorothy Elizabeth Pine Mets

≫ My partner and I were on duty as paramedics. We watched a man pass out hundreds of U.S. flags to drivers on the street. I saw something I had never before seen personified: pride, love of country, solidarity, determination. Tears ran down my face. I knew America would not only survive but recover, overcome, and thrive. I’d always loved my country, but that day I fell in love. Tammy R. Musgrove

≫ We don’t travel far from home anymore. Sheila Halet

≫ I realized life can never be taken for granted. Nancy Shaftang, Sabah, Malaysia

≫ It helped me meet my husband. Partly because of 9/11, he was inspired to join the Army. During his first deployment to Iraq in 2006, we met online. We married in 2007. Angela Metcalf, Tucson, Arizona

≫ My wife and I joined the St. Peters, Missouri, Community Emergency Response Team to help both our neighbors and the brave men of the fire and police departments in case of a disaster. Arizona Scott Epstein, St. Peters, Missouri

≫ My eyes were opened to the cruel, scary world that existed outside the safety of my small town that day. Being in only the sixth grade, I felt like a huge chunk of my innocence was taken by the terrorists. Miranda Reid, Ackerman, Mississippi

≫ It was a reminder that we should not wait to say “I love you” to our loved ones. Pamela Madrid, Manila, Philippines

≫ It opened my eyes to the fact that America is not invincible, which was a very scary feeling. Kate Nessler, Cincinnati, Ohio

≫ I found myself examining what freedom really means to me. I realized we are not one world, as much as we would like to be. Stephen Greg Legat

≫ I became more world-aware instead of self-aware. I’ve lost a lot of my self-entitlement. Annamarie Cardinal

≫ I have learned that Muslims in other countries were also horrified and grieved on 9/11. It is past time we understood that fact. Susan Diane Cain

Originally Published in Reader's Digest

Popular Videos