By David Corn
It changed everything.
That’s the mantra that emerged from the horrific attacks of September 11, 2001. In certain areas of our collective lives, it was an accurate description. Security concerns increased. The United States went to war in two far-away lands. It engaged in brutal practices that amounted to torture and opened secret prisons and the ever-controversial Guantanamo facility. Ugly barriers went up around public facilities. Navigating airports became a new kind of nightmare.
But as the dust was settling, commentators and pundits also applied the changed-everything observation to other aspects of our society. Americans would become more united as citizens and more engaged with the world beyond their national borders. (Students did flock to Arab studies programs; CIA recruitment soared.) Our national discourse would become more serious—and such obsessions as shark attacks and the tragic disappearance of Capitol Hill intern Chandra Levy (the big stories during the summer of 2001) would be supplanted by more significant and important fare. Our politicians would devote more effort to advancing common interests rather than accruing political gain. We would all be better versions of ourselves.
For a time, some of that happened—on both mundane and more notable levels. Americans, anecdotal evidence indicated, became a bit more contemplative about their lives and priorities. In the weeks after 9/11, people were more courteous drivers (at least in Washington, DC). They gave other motorists more room and yielded more readily. The media produced stories about America’s place in the world; they explored the simplistic question, “Why do they hate us?” And the politicians did seem to ponder how to govern in a less divisive manner. President George W. Bush’s approval ratings skyrocketed, as Americans of various political bents, including those who had previously scorned the chad-enabled commander-in-chief, rallied around him.
But life often reverts to form, and change is fleeting and not necessarily a guarantee of progress. At some point, the old driving behaviors returned. Americans never did become very well informed about foreign affairs. A political culture of division and spin resumed. And these were all connected—well, maybe not the driving.
This week, the University of Maryland released a 9/11-related poll showing that many Americans remain ignorant about the link between 9/11 and the war Bush and Dick Cheney launched in Iraq. Nearly half of the respondents noted that Iraq was “directly involved” in the 9/11 assaults (15 percent) or gave “substantial support” to Al Qaeda without participating in those attacks (31 percent.). Neither is true. Iraq, as the 9/11 Commission reported, had not been in league with Al Qaeda. It had not provided “substantial” assistance—or any aid of note, for that matter—to Osama bin Laden and his mass-murderers.
The same poll also found that about half of Americans (47 percent) believe that prior to the Iraq war, the regime possessed actual weapons of mass destruction or had a major WMD program under way. Again, not true.
Obviously, the trauma of 9/11 did not cause Americans to become knowledgeable about the United States’ most significant overseas endeavor. But one reason for the widespread misbelief is that the political leaders of the country, in the aftermath of the attacks, soon resorted to the usual tactics to manipulate the public discourse, rather than elevate it.
Read More 9/11: What Didn’t Change | Mother Jones.