Twenty-Four Experts On American Culture and Public Opinion Look Ahead to a New Era Ushered In by the Terrorist Attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon

October 1, 2001 

By killing and injuring thousands of people and laying bare an unprecedented new dimension of American vulnerability, the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon seem destined to provoke changes of seismic proportions in U.S. public attitudes.

To take a look at how these events may shift public perception and outlook, American Demographics interviewed 24 historians, economists, psychologists, sociologists and public opinion specialists. We sent them questions as a starting point, but allowed them to range widely in assessing how the attacks might affect the way Americans think and live. We conducted these interviews in the days immediately after the attacks. At the time, polls suggested widespread support for military action, and indicated that Americans were willing to alter their lifestyles and sacrifice some civil liberties to fight terrorism. The experts we interviewed provided insights into possible changes in public attitudes regarding not only war and civil liberties, but urban life, immigration, travel, law enforcement, government, the stock market and personal safety. The loss of a sense of security was cited by almost everyone. Many spoke of the attacks as the end of our national innocence, a harsh awakening to the fact that the array of possible deadly threats far exceeds our ability to protect ourselves. “We never had to feel before that everyone is at risk—your family, your children, your neighbors,” says Alvin Poussaint, psychiatry professor at Harvard. “We have to figure out ways of protecting ourselves and forever being wary that something can happen.”

Among the long-term effects that are particularly difficult to predict are the economic aftershocks. While economists say the uncertainty is harmful, others say that large-scale expenditures, on the military and construction, may enable the country to avert recession. One lasting impact may be that Americans will have more compassion for the struggles of others, says Siamak Movahedi, professor at The Institute for the Study of Violence at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. To Movahedi, terrorism is born of frustration and helplessness. “In the long run, this will breed a more sane and rational foreign policy,” he says. “[People in the U.S.] won’t be able to watch events in other parts of the world without empathy.”

Edited transcripts of these interviews appear below.

Neil Howe

49, ECONOMIST AND HISTORIAN. CO-AUTHOR OF NUMEROUS BOOKS INCLUDING GENERATIONS [MORROW PRESS, 1991], AND MILLENNIALS RISING [VINTAGE BOOKS, 2000].

Generation Y grew up in an era when older people were degrading big institutions and government, when government didn’t control violent factions. This generation sees a vacuum of authority and state power, and they believe that evil comes from that vacuum. Expect this generation to fill that void. The image of American life, which makes America so hateful in the eyes of our enemies today, is one of celebrity culture gone rampant. Americans, especially younger generations, will feel like, ‘You’re right, that’s not our finest side.’ The less uplifting side of our culture will come under more scrutiny and will be seen as less lacking of consequence. I expect to see a deflation of celebrity culture.

The coming decades will be a time when history speeds up and family and personal life slow down. Suddenly, I expect a lot of things of historical importance to happen and family life to return to the likes of a Frank Capra movie.

In a lot of ways, this generation will be more like the GI Generation than anything else, and an episode like [September 11] will only accentuate this. Each generation replaces the vacuum left behind. As the GI Generation dies off, Generation Y will work to replace what society has lost. Already we can see Generation Y has been extremely interested in the Boomer-produced ‘90s movies like Saving Private Ryan and Pearl Harbor. They watch these movies and wonder, ‘What was it like when America did big things together?’

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