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A Day of Infamy, an Altered Future

When terrorists crashed passenger planes into New York's Twin Towers and Washington's Pentagon on Sept. 11, many people compared the tragic events of that day to Pearl Harbor—Japan's surprise attack on the U.S. Pacific fleet on Dec. 7, 1941.

Pearl Harbor goes down as one of the great transforming events of American history. Not only did it trigger America's entry into World War II, it changed the country forever.

No sooner did President Franklin D. Roosevelt ask Congress for a declaration of war against Japan than he tabled most of his domestic agenda. "He said he was switching from Doctor New Deal to Doctor Win-the-War," says FDR biographer James MacGregor Burns.

The war soon ignited an economy still smarting from the effects of the Great Depression. It expanded the role of the federal government in American life, sometimes for good, sometimes for ill. And it propelled America irrevocably into the global arena.

"Pearl Harbor ended the illusion that we could isolate ourselves from the world," says American University historian Allan J. Lichtman.

Will the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have similarly lasting effects on American history? Will they change our agenda? Our national character? Our sense of our place in the world?

"I think the shock of this event is comparable to Pearl Harbor," says Columbia University historian Alan Brinkley. "But the consequences of Sept. 11 are unlikely to be as profound. We're not entering a war that's in any way comparable to World War II."

As a result, says Brinkley, the Bush administration's campaign against terrorism probably won't have the same effect on domestic policy that World War II had on FDR's New Deal.

Moreover, "unlike Roosevelt's New Deal, [President] Bush's domestic program has been modest," says William Leuchtenburg, an FDR historian at the University of North Carolina. "So there isn't as much that's going to be postponed."

But while the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks may not alter history the way Pearl Harbor did, some scholars see troubling changes in American life stemming from that day of terror.

"I think what [Sept. 11] created is a sense of personal vulnerability—which most Americans have never felt," historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. tells the AARP Bulletin.

And American University's Lichtman adds that while Pearl Harbor shattered the myth of American isolation, Sept. 11 shattered something quite different: "What I call the myth of American invincibility.

"That's the myth that we were separate and apart from the tragedies of the world, that we were the world's only superpower, that we were an open, easygoing country," he says.

"It's going to take us years to sort out what the loss of American invincibility means," Lichtman adds. "Does it mean we become more like the rest of the world? More armed, more security-conscious, more suspicious of one another? I don't know."

What is certain, say experts, is one outcome nobody expected. "Bush came to office seeking to limit the power of the national government, and the reverse is going to happen," says Leuchtenburg. "We're going to see a very considerable expansion of national power."

Even so, "I don't think there will be any fundamental change in our basic institutions," says political scientist Burns. "But I do think there will be some erosion of [our] civil liberties because [security] is so much an internal problem, not just external."

Burns adds, "I just take that [development] more or less for granted and hope the erosion can be limited as much as possible."

Some historians and political scientists interviewed for this article take a different view. They see the Sept. 11 attacks as a possible catalyst for positive change. "The world is not going to be the same as it was before Sept. 11," says Victor Davis Hanson, a military historian at California State University in Fresno.

Out of every great tragedy, Hanson asserts, there's a paradigm shift. "Pearl Harbor put an end to the Depression and to isolationism," he says. "Fort Sumter put an end to the idea that slavery was negotiable, or a thing that could be compromised."

And the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he believes, will lead Americans to rediscover their history and values. "[Sept. 11] is going to bring America back to more of a 19th century appreciation of our institutions," he says. "Words like courage and patriotism may re-enter [our] vocabulary."

Already, he adds, he sees signs of an attitude change among Americans: "I see people who are elites putting flags on their lapels, and they don't consider this hokey or jingoistic, but actually a symbol that they feel terrible about people being incinerated."

Columbia University historian Brinkley is more guarded. "I think it's much too early to know how deep the impact of this [tragedy] will be on the country," he says. "A lot depends on what happens in the next months and years."

Still, Brinkley sees the potential for a cultural shift in values. "The gravity of this event [could] change the sort of cynical or ironical character of much of our popular culture," he says.

Whatever the effects of the Sept. 11 attacks on popular culture, experts agree that one major change is already under way: greater respect for government. "Living in New York I may have a skewed view," Brinkley says, "but suddenly the police and the firemen and the city government and the mayor are the great heroes of the day.

"I think what [current events] are doing, at least for the moment, is making people realize how dependent they are on government for things that are of critical importance to them," he says. "The casual dismissal of government as irrelevant may be more difficult to sustain."

Nor is this change limited to the local scene. "People feel that the only way to get airport security is for the federal government to take over," says historian Schlesinger.

Americans clearly seem satisfied with the president's handling of the crisis. Bush's approval ratings are at almost unprecedented highs—highs that haven't been recorded since his father led the country to a victorious outcome in the Gulf War in 1991.

Overall, the country seems more unified than any time since World War II. Will it last? Probably only for a while, says Burns. "Unity begins to ebb away as things get tough."

And things will get tough, says Lichtman. "It's going to be very hard to sustain unity [in the face of] what's likely to be a twilight kind of war—a war more akin to the war on drugs than to World War II."

So will the country never again enjoy security? Burns thinks there can be progress in the war on terrorism, but he doubts whether there will be full security until America addresses what he believes is the root of the problem: global poverty.

"This may seem simplistic, but I think it's basically true, that deprivation is at the heart of all these problems," Burns says. "They take different forms, whether it's drugs or terrorism or illiteracy or whatever else. It goes back to the fact that several hundred million people, if not more, are living in poverty. I don't think they will do this indefinitely."

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