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Carmen Nobel’s 9/11 started at dawn with a cab ride to Boston’s Logan Airport. Nobel, a senior editor for the technology magazine eWEEK, was on the road several times a month back then, covering trade shows and chronicling the quickly dying dot-com economy. She had no way of knowing that she had made a decision weeks before that saved her life.
Nobel’s bosses had given her a choice: Cover an event in Los Angeles or head to a similar one in Atlanta. Concerned about the impact business travel was having on her social life, she chose the shorter flight and quicker turnaround in Georgia.
“I don’t even remember going through security, because back then going through security was no big whoop,” Nobel recalls.
As she headed down the terminal just before 7:30 a.m., the headline news monitors squawked the stories of the day. We were in the waning days of the “summer of sharks,” as reporters were referring to it, after a record 29 attacks, two of them deadly. The New York Yankees had just beaten the reeling Red Sox for the seventh time.
Nobel pulled her roller bag past the gate where American Airlines flight 11 was boarding for L.A. Had she chosen her assignment differently, she almost certainly would have been on that plane. Trudging by, she was steps away from five terrorists including Mohamed Atta, the 9/11 mastermind. They boarded their flight; she boarded hers. Before her feet touched ground again, the world would be a very different place.
While few had a front-row seat to history like Carmen Nobel, most everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing on the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001 — the day American life changed forever. There are the big changes, of course: ongoing and expensive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the patriot Act, and similar initiatives born in the name of national security such as onerous travel security checks.
There are smaller, more personal changes as well. We need passports to travel to neighboring Canada and Mexico now. Immigration restrictions are tighter, and visas can be difficult to obtain. And there have been other subtle changes to the way we work and play and pray and live, experts note. Most of it adds up to a general feeling of disquiet and national malaise across the nation.
“The horrible tragedy of 9/11 has in some ways shifted the arc of American history,” says Richard Stengel, managing director of Time magazine. The decade since “is one of the most sustained periods of pessimism in American history.”
In July, Stengel presented findings of a comprehensive poll tracking changes in America and Americans’ attitudes since 9/11. The survey, a joint project of Time and the Aspen Ideas Festival (AIF), found that two-thirds of those polled feel America is in decline.
A full 71 percent say that we are worse off now than we were at the beginning of the decade, while only 6 percent feel we’re doing better. Sixty-one percent say the events of 9/11 weakened America. And such attitudes “may not be temporary,” says Stengel.
“Historically, we have been the great optimistic nation,” he says. Since 9/11, “we’re moving from a kind adolescence as a nation to more maturity, where we are looking at things in a more realistic light.”
A plurality of Americans, 41 percent, say 9/11 was the defining moment of the past decade. It’s a long drop to second place, where 7 percent say the election of Barack Obama was the most important event; only 5 percent say it was the economic downturn.
Not even the death of Osama bin Laden improved attitudes much. A majority of those polled believe that the al-Qaida leader’s killing put the country at greater risk for more terror attacks. Only 2 in 5 said they felt some sense of closure as a result of his assassination, while 80 percent believe there will be a major terrorist attack in the next decade.
So who do Americans blame for our dark post-9/11 malaise? Those polled were about evenly split between George W. Bush (23 percent) and Barack Obama (20 percent). Only 7 percent blame the terrorists.
“The political system is on the front lines of blame for the decade of decline for Americans. No question about that,” says Mark Penn, CEO of PR firm Burson-Marsteller and vice chairman of Penn Schoen Berland, which conducted the poll for Time and AIF. “Americans want their leaders to focus on domestic issues.
“The voters are saying the biggest threat to our stability is if we don’t get our internal fiscal and political house in order,” Penn says. “What are the biggest threats? National debt, high government spending, budget deficit, rising health care costs, weakening U.S. dollar. Pretty strong list.”
The poll does reveal interesting perceptions about who lost the most as a result of the post-9/11 decline. Most felt that quality of life for working- and middle-class Americans along with the elderly had been hurt the most. So what can America’s leaders do to help reverse the perceived post-9/11 decline?
“I think the country is really crying out for a national narrative that shows how we go from this decade of decline towards a future that is bright but realistic. And that’s a hard thing to accomplish,” says Donald Baer, a former senior adviser to President Bill Clinton and a vice chairman at Burson-Marsteller who contributed to the Time/AIF project. There have been some bright spots in the years since 9/11, of course. “We’ve seen tremendous progress in technology,” says Baer. “We’ve seen the rise of democracy in many places. Medical advances are changing the quality of life for people everywhere.”
Officials had feared a spike in anti-Muslim hate crimes in the wake of 9/11. But according to the FBI, after a brief spike in incidents in late 2001, the number of anti-Islam attacks fell back down to previous levels, on par with crimes against Catholics and other Christians.
The events of 9/11 were also expected to drive more people toward organized religion. And they did — for a while. But the in decade since, church attendance, which spiked in 2002, has fallen back to pre-9/11 levels, according to the Barna Group, a research firm specializing in religious issues.
In many ways, the more realistically optimistic found their own way after 9/11. Carmen Nobel counts herself in that camp. On Sept. 11, 2001, she landed in Atlanta and first realized something was wrong when she saw a crowd gathered beneath the TV monitors in an airport bar. She looked up to see the first tower fall. A pilot standing next to her said “this is war.” Nobel realized she was crying. The world had changed.
But did the events of 9/11 change her? “Today, I’m an editor at Harvard Business School. I write about organizational behavior studies,” she says.
“I think that everything is a result of everything. Maybe 9/11 planted the seed in my head that I’d rather be writing about humanity than technology.”
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