Sept. 11 changed psyche of U.S., but how deeply?

November 24, 2001 | By Stacey Burling

The conventional wisdom is that Sept. 11 marked a turning point in American history, one which will forever change the way we think and behave.

But will it?

One professor says the attacks on the World Trade Center dealt the final blow to an already waning “clean-living” movement—that righteous time of Jane Fonda, vegans, and thank-you-for-not-smoking posters—of the last part of the 20th century. Another academic says events of the last two months will only strengthen that movement.

Some pundits contend the attacks will make us more religious and interested in other world views, make the culture wars seem just plain silly, and shape a new generation of young people in the mold of those who fought World War II. To hear some popular media tell it, the terrorists have ushered in a hedonistic, stressed-out era of one-night stands, chocolate and cigarettes. Everybody wants a gun.

Hold on, say the skeptics.

It is very difficult to tell now whether something will seem important in a hundred years, they say. Big events sometimes are of little long-term consequence. A series of relatively small ones—the individual events of the civil rights movement, for example—can slowly create cataclysmic change.

According to Tom W. Smith, director of the general social survey at the National Opinion Research Center in Chicago, there is a big difference between isolated events that stick in everyone’s memory, such as the Kennedy assassination or the Lindbergh kidnapping, and periods such as the Great Depression and World War II that truly change generations.

“Turning points are, quite frankly, very rare,” Smith said.

We can know now, he said, that the World Trade Center attack will be an “indelible benchmark.” But whether it begins a new era, many experts said, depends on whether there are more attacks, whether anthrax goes away, and whether the economy goes into a long-term tailspin.

Heather Young, a 28-year-old assistant district attorney in Philadelphia, paused in the midst of eating an extremely healthy-looking salad last week to put it as well as any historian: “We’re really not going to understand the effects of this until 30 years from now.”

Of course, people are trying to understand now. And, whether they were eating McDonald’s fries, smoking in the sunshine, or just talking, people on the streets and park benches of Philadelphia one lunch hour last week were just as opinionated and confused as the experts.

Jean Sledge of Frankford has been eating more, but her friend Vestina Bonds has been so nervous she has been eating less. Mary Ellen Blatz, a 51-year-old law-firm employee, started smoking again for the first time in 10 years. “I don’t think we’ll ever be back to normal again,” she said.

There are more prayers and flags and a greater appreciation for America’s freedom. People hope that will last, but they are not sure it will.

“It just brought the best out in everybody. It really has,” said Ruben Fair, an Army veteran and security guard at the Youth Study Center in Center City. “It’ll carry through the winter. It’ll carry through the war.”

That said, there are some interesting theories about how the last two months will change the way Americans think and behave:

Ruth Engs, a professor of applied-health science at Indiana University who has studied health-reform movements, thinks the war on terrorism will bring an early end to the clean-living movement, although parts of it, such as the drive for chastity before marriage, will survive awhile longer. The Civil War and World War I effectively ended the first (1830-1860) and second (1880-1920) clean-living movements.

Drug and alcohol use tends to rise after wars, Engs said, and other health concerns lose their appeal during times of national struggle. “As people get concerned for survival, they’re not going to worry about chocolate or their diet,” she said.

She suspects that the current clean-living movement, which peaked in the early 1990s, will burn itself out in two or three years.

David F. Musto, who has studied attitudes toward alcohol and drugs, said periods of upheaval have tended to accentuate current health beliefs: People want to be as strong as possible to meet the challenge. World War I, he said, strengthened the temperance movement. Musto, a professor of child psychiatry and the history of medicine at Yale University, believes the country is still firmly entrenched in a period of risk-avoidance and temperance that will only grow deeper if the terrorist threats continue.

“If you have a tremendous threat to national safety and your own safety, you will fall back on what you think is healthy behavior,” he said.

Robert Fogel, who believes the United States is amid its fourth religious awakening, which started in the 1960s, thinks the current crisis can only intensify religious fervor. The increase in patriotism noted by all the polls fits in. “From an ideological point of view, I think we’ve probably turned the corner in the sense of greater emphasis on national values and what we have in common,” said Fogel, a professor of American institutions at the University of Chicago.

Neil Howe, a Washington consultant who has written with William Strauss about “rhythms” of history and 80-year generational cycles, thinks recent events may hasten what he calls a “fourth turning,” a 20-year period of crisis, and sweeping economic and political changes. This new era, he believes, could shape the generation born after 1982 into a group that believes in big government, working together and conforming.

Ashok Gangadean, a professor of philosophy at Haverford College, sees 3,000 years of world history as a struggle between an egocentric, inward-looking world view and an alternative desire to understand how people from different religions and cultures think. The attack on the World Trade Center, he said, was a “crisis showdown” between the two views that he thinks will hasten the arrival of a “new era of global consciousness.”

The idea that there are cycles is disputed by many historians. And predicting the future, everyone agrees, is tough.

Timothy Burke, a cultural historian at Swarthmore College who is teaching “History of the Future” this semester, said prognosticators had a “pretty bad” track record.

“If this was baseball, the average futurist is way below Mendoza in his batting average,” he said.

Burke thinks cultural arguments about healthfulness and living more hedonistically often coexist. Sept. 11 may not change the balance at all, but it likely will mute the argument. “They’re the kinds of things people struggle about when they don’t have anything else to struggle about,” he said.

So far, pollsters are seeing big increases in patriotism, support for government, and interest in the world—attitudes that could have major implications if they stick.

At this point, facts on behavior are hard to come by. One diet company said people were pigging out on “comfort food.” A local Weight Watchers official said that although her clients do seem to want more chocolate and mashed potatoes, they are not gaining weight, and interest in forming groups at work is up.

Despite anecdotal reports of an increase in one-night stands, 10 percent of men answering a new Men’s Health magazine survey on the negative health effects of terrorism said their sex lives had suffered.

Liquor sales in Pennsylvania dipped markedly after the attacks but are now back to normal.

A survey by a company that helps people stop smoking found 30 percent of smokers were smoking more after the attacks. But a Gallup poll taken this month found that the percentage of people smoking has actually dropped two percentage points since May.

Church attendance increased right after the attack but is now back to pre-attack levels. The proportion of homes in America that have guns is not up.

“I personally doubt that the events of the 11th have signaled huge changes in these kinds of behavior,” said Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll.


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