The silver lining of 9/11

One year ago, terrorists left deep marks on American society, but hardly those they intended.

Evidence shows that Americans have become more public-minded and less materialistic, more family- and community-oriented, and even a bit more spiritual. Although the effects of the 2001 attack on America are receding, they have far from vanished and some seem to have considerable staying power. No wonder. They are extending trends that were unfolding before 9/11/01. All this deserves some elaboration.

Since the attack, Americans have placed more emphasis on serving others and less on materialism. Among activities that have become more meaningful are "spending time with family" (77 percent), "helping others" (73 percent), and "serving the country" (67 percent), according to a poll for American Demographics magazine. In contrast, only 30 percent said "getting ahead" means more to them. Similarly, "retiring young" and "making lots of money" seemed more important only to a minority (27 percent and 19 percent, respectively). This change buys us at least one cheer.

Especially telling are the occupations that have gained prestige. It is commonplace that we now have new heroes: firefighters and police, whose star rose among 3 out of 4 Americans. The same holds for our fighting men and women.

Less expected was that various other professions that serve the public have gained in status, while those that do not have lost luster. Thus, physicians and teachers are more admired than a year ago (now 58 and 46 percent, respectively), while athletes and entertainers have lost prestige. Thanks to the terrorists, we now have true heroes. A second cheer.

Americans not only say that they have "decided to spend more time with family," but also report they have actually done so. In November 2001, according to a Harris Interactive Poll, more than 6 in 10 Americans felt a need to spend more time with family. By May 2002, that was up to 7 out of 10. In the end, about half of all Americans report that they actually have spent more time with family.

While more than half of Americans tell pollsters that their spiritual and religious beliefs have been strengthened by Sept. 11, there has been no noticeable increase in traditional measures of religiosity. In October 2001, 57 percent of Americans said they had thought more about the spiritual parts of their lives since the attack and 34 percent indicated that they planned to "put more emphasis on the religious aspects of the [coming] holidays." However, the percentage of those attending services "more than once a week," "once a week," "once or twice a month," "a few times a year," "seldom," or "never" has remained basically the same in recent years.

Here the effect of 9/11 is to extend an existing trend. Even before the 2001 attack only about one-quarter of Americans said that "doctrines and beliefs are the most important part of religion," compared with nearly 7 out of 10 who said that "an individual's spiritual experience is the most important part of religion," according to a US News and World Report poll. Indeed, to the extent that Americans experienced a religious revival, much of it is not institutionalized and finds more charismatic expressions – such as sidewalk shrines.

While in the past "government," "Washington," and "bureaucracy" were terms of derision, confidence in the government surged after 9/11. It has subsided a bit since, but remains high. The percentage of those who had "great confidence" in the federal government – including even Congress – more than tripled right after 9/11 (from 14 percent to 52 percent), according to National Opinion Research Center (NORC).

Interestingly, Republicans – historically more suspicious of government – have become even more trusting of the government than Democrats. Although the data are strongest after the attack, hostility to the government had been subsiding before.

The shutdown of the government in 1995 seems to have left an indelible mark on the public; people realized that the government runs many things important to them, from parks to passport offices. Also the GOP, to win the 2000 election, toned down its antigovernment rhetoric, and there is a Republican in the White House.

Increased trust in government is paralleled by higher trust in one another, making Americans more community-minded and secure, more communitarian. Before the attack, about half of all Americans thought that people were "fair" and "helpful" (52 percent and 46 percent) and only a third (35 percent) found them "trustworthy," NORC found. A few weeks after the attack, those who saw around them fair and helpful people rose to 2 of 3, and 41 percent thought people were trustworthy.

Equally telling, since the attacks Americans feel more closely aligned with the nation or their immediate community than with any other group. When asked the group they feel closest to, more than half of Americans (51 percent) replied "my fellow Americans." One nation, under attack, has become more indivisible. A third cheer.

The terrorists, of course, took their toll. Americans remain more concerned about security (e.g., fly less), are willing to tolerate curtailment of many individual rights to enhance safety, and spend tons of money on the military and homeland security. But in these clouds there is a silver lining.

• Amitai Etzioni teaches sociology at George Washington University and is author of 'The Monochrome Society.' This article is based on a report "American Society in the Age of Terrorism" issued by the Communitarian Network. See

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.