For a day, time stood still. Airports froze, schools dispersed, and businesses shut down, as the country and the world looked on at the horror known as 9/11. On that infamous day, Muslim terrorists hijacked four airplanes and successfully flew them into three buildings: World Trade Center 1, World Trade Center 2, and the Pentagon. Emergency responders rushed into action and firefighters from across the country rushed to the scene, but most Americans did not know how to react and simply cried. Anger, compassion, and confusion swept over the population, but the most prevalent resulting emotion was fear. Fear for our safety and of our vulnerability took root and changed the feelings of the country. Fear shifted our definitions of personal space, privacy, and even freedom. There have been several “defining moments” in American history that shifted the opinions of a generation and influenced the country’s path for the future: The signing of the Declaration of Independence, the Civil War, Pearl Harbor and WWII are just a few. Similarly, 9/11 has influenced the thoughts, actions, and ideals of Americans more than any event in recent history, and in particular, the fear invoked that day inspired a dramatic shift in the attitudes towards and protocols of American security.
This fear and feeling of vulnerability is most visible when observing the obvious changes in airport security. On September 11th, the country was attacked via commercial public airplanes, so it make sense that some of the most obvious changes in the wake of these terrorist attacks would be in airport security, and anyone who has flown in the last decade has experienced the dramatic transformation of airports. Prior to 9/11, airport security was relaxed and unobtrusive. In fact, it would not be uncommon to arrive 20 minutes before boarding and easily make the flight. A scene from Home Alone 2 comes to mind in which the family arrives minutes before boarding and runs relatively uninhibited from the entrance to their plane. Not that everyone arrived dangerously late for their flights prior to 9/11, but the time consuming precautions that are in place today simply did not exist. Anyone could walk around the airport from terminal to terminal and accompany loved ones to their boarding gates even without a ticket. Additionally, plane cockpit doors were often left open during boarding and children were frequently allowed inside for a quick tour (Sign). These pre-9/11 realities serve as examples of generally relaxed security protocol and of the generally accepted level of privacy and convenience. The historical context and mindset of these policies are based on the fact that no real terroristic attack had ever been conducted via commercial airplanes, and it was unlikely any attack would happen in the future. Essentially, we were naïve to the idea that we could possibly be vulnerable to such an attack and so the security policies in place seemed substantial.
However, on September 11th 2001 we were taken completely by surprise by a catastrophic terrorist attack and in light of our apparent vulnerability and the resulting fear, people were willing to sacrifice privacy and personal liberty for safety, and the acceptable levels of security in airports changed dramatically. Two months after the attack, Congress passed two acts, the Airport Security Federalization Act and the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, which standardized airport security (Knight). The acts created the Federal Transportation Security Administration (TSA) whose job initially was to facilitate a $300 million airport security improvement project, hiring and training 55,000 Federal airport screeners, and introducing new security technology to 450 airports across the country (Lerner; Sign). As a result, American travelers now have to remove their belts and shoes, walk through bomb detectors and body scanners, and are often subject to pat-downs and bag checks. Preflight security procedures went from 20 minutes to upwards of two hours. Also, contrary to pre-9/11 airports, current airports restrict access to departure and arrival gates and concourses to ticketed passengers only, and thorough checks of electronics and carry-on luggage have become commonplace (Lerner). Additionally, cockpit doors now remain locked throughout the entire flight, pilots are armed, and there is at least one armed United States Air Marshall on board, in clear contrast to the more relaxed policies prior to 9/11. These are just a few of the many hindrances American travelers endure in airports because our standards of required security shifted on 9/11. Common American opinion dictates that when we think back on the lives that were lost that day, the encumbrances of airport security seems a small price to pay to ensure our future security.
In addition to changes in airports, other laws and government policies passed in the aftermath of 9/11 reflect the feelings of fear and vulnerability, and the acceptance of these policies is indicative of a clear attitudinal shift throughout the country. Following the attacks on 9/11, in direct response to the pain and fear invoked that day, it was a common American belief that the government should be given whatever authority it required to effectively combat terrorism. The most obvious example of this shift came with the emphatic passing of the Patriot Act immediately after 9/11 with little opposition in Congress. According to Harold Koh, an international law professor at Yale and an Assistant Secretary of State under Bill Clinton, the Patriot Act allows for the following:
[The act] authorizes the Defense Department to develop a project to promote something called "total information awareness." Under this program, the government may gather huge amounts of information about citizens without proving they have done anything wrong. They can access a citizen's records—whether telephone, financial, rental, internet, medical, educational or library—without showing any involvement with terrorism ("How Has 9/11 Changed America's Approach to Human Rights?").
Also, the Patriot Act allows the CIA, FBI, and U.S. Treasury Departments to share information, the attorney general to detain aliens without cause, and increased secret wiretaps of U.S. citizens ("Patriotic Protection or Loss of Civil Liberties?"). Surely, all of these policies would never have been accepted prior to 9/11, especially not relatively unopposed as they were following the attacks, and thus the shift in attitudes regarding security is clear. The opinions of the U.S. Attorney General in 2001, John Ashcroft, reflect this rash, or perhaps necessary, emotional and attitudinal shift throughout the country:
The danger that darkened the United States of America and the civilized world on September 11 did not pass with the atrocities committed that day. They require that we provide law enforcement with the tools necessary to identify, dismantle, disrupt, and punish terrorist organizations before they strike again… Today I urge the Congress, I call upon the Congress to act, to strengthen our ability to fight this evil wherever it exists ("Patriotic Protection or Loss of Civil Liberties?").
In more recent years, these vigorous, retaliatory emotions have begun to fade, but changing government security policies clearly depict an attitudinal shift in Americans in the aftermath of 9/11 and still impact the country today.
One final and obvious reflection of the fear that took root on 9/11 is in the attitudes toward and treatment of Arab people in America. On September 11th 2001, 19 Muslim men attacked our country in a way that was hardly conceivable, and expectedly, the population responded stereotypically and with hostility. American citizens of Middle Eastern descent were often singled out for searches and interrogations, and an entire culture had been labeled with an unfortunate stigma. In airports following 9/11, “[Middle Eastern] men, women, and children were searched repeatedly before being allowed on planes, were refused permission to board, or, in some cases, were removed from planes before take-off because the other passengers or the pilot objected to their presence” ("Patriotic Protection or Loss of Civil Liberties?"). Even though this kind of racial profiling has been outlawed and airport searches are now “random”, screeners continue to target people of Middle Eastern descent. Sadly, as a result of 9/11, when many Americans see Muslims in airports, that feeling of fear, anxiety, and anger rears its ugly head.
Without a doubt, 9/11 was a major defining moment in U.S. history, and the feelings of fear and vulnerability that swept over the country in its aftermath produced a dramatic shift in American attitudes and policies towards safety and security. The most apparent display of this shift came in the form of airport security. Considering the tragedy of 9/11 unfolded as a result of a lack of airport security, the need for a change in airports seemed obvious. Prior to 9/11, airport security and protocol was fairly relaxed and convenient, allowing for a certain amount of freedom and privacy. After 9/11 however, airport security increased significantly by government mandate. New government policies enacted in response to 9/11 restricted some civil liberties as well, which reflected the willingness of the population to accept these practices because of their collective desire for protection and safety. Lastly, the shifting attitudes of the American people in response to 9/11 is observable in the changing treatment of Muslims, as the fear and anger that 9/11 inspired was in part directed towards Arabs. On September 11, 2001 our nation changed forever, and we will always remember that day when time stood still in infamy. However, in many ways we became stronger as a nation that day, and it will be interesting to see how we respond to our next “defining moment”.
"How Has 9/11 Changed America's Approach to Human Rights?" Human and Civil Rights: Essential Primary Sources. Ed. Adrienne Wilmoth Lerner, Brenda Wilmoth Lerner, and K. Lee Lerner. Detroit: Gale, 2006. 426-431. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 22 Oct. 2012.
Knight, Judson. "Civil Aviation Security, United States." Encyclopedia of Espionage, Intelligence and Security. Ed. K. Lee Lerner and Brenda Wilmoth Lerner. Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale, 2004. 209-210. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 18 Oct. 2012.
Lerner, Adrienne Wilmoth. "Airline Security." Encyclopedia of Espionage, Intelligence and Security. Ed. K. Lee Lerner and Brenda Wilmoth Lerner. Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale, 2004. 20-22. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 18 Oct. 2012.
"Patriotic Protection or Loss of Civil Liberties?" Open for Debate. Vol. 24: Security v. Privacy. Tarrytown, NY: Marshall Cavendish, 2009. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 22 Oct. 2012.
Sign, Christopher. "How Airport Security Was Before 9/11." ABC15.com. Scripps Media, Inc., 6 Sept. 2011. Web. 18 Oct. 2012. .