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What Changed When Everything Changed

What Changed When Everything Changed: 9/11 and the Making of National Identity

Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 392
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  • Book Info
    What Changed When Everything Changed
    Book Description:

    Beautifully written and carefully reasoned, this bold and provocative work upends the conventional wisdom about the American reaction to crisis. Margulies demonstrates that for key elements of the post-9/11 landscape-especially support for counterterror policies like torture and hostility to Islam-American identity is not only darker than it was before September 11, 2001, but substantially more repressive than it was immediately after the attacks. These repressive attitudes, Margulies shows us, have taken hold even as the terrorist threat has diminished significantly.

    Contrary to what is widely imagined, at the moment of greatest perceived threat, when the fear of another attack "hung over the country like a shroud," favorable attitudes toward Muslims and Islam were at record highs, and the suggestion that America should torture was denounced in the public square. Only much later did it become socially acceptable to favor "enhanced interrogation" and exhibit clear anti-Muslim prejudice. Margulies accounts for this unexpected turn and explains what it means to the nation's identity as it moves beyond 9/11. We express our values in the same language, but that language can hide profound differences and radical changes in what we actually believe. "National identity," he writes, "is not fixed, it is made."

    eISBN: 978-0-300-19520-0
    Subjects: History, Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. 1 “What the United States of America Is All About at Our Core”
    (pp. 1-14)

    A campaign that seemed endless was at last coming to a close. On October 11, 2000, Texas Governor George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore took their seats at a table on the stage of Wait Chapel at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, for their second presidential debate. The event was billed as a conversation, with Jim Lehrer, the polished public television anchor, as the moderator. He took the candidates through an eclectic assortment of national issues, from gay marriage to education reform. On foreign policy, Lehrer asked how the rest of the world should view the...


    • 2 “The Ceaseless Striving to Live Out Our True Creed”
      (pp. 17-41)

      Scholars and social critics have long pondered the seemingly unbridgeable divide between lofty ideal and lived reality. The many dark chapters in American history—slavery, Jim Crow, and the periodic bursts of xenophobia, nationalism, discrimination, and nativism—have continually prompted debates that challenge whether the United States is genuinely committed to its stated values. This is certainly a sensible object of study; the political scientist Theodore Lowi recently observed that political illegitimacy “can be measured simply as the distance between form and reality.”¹ Because the distance endures, the debates continue. But we must recognize their limits. Whatever worried commentators may...

    • 3 The Dark Side of the Creed
      (pp. 42-62)

      Every nation believes in its own virtue. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, though at the margins it risks an ugly turn to nationalism. In the main, however, it endows a country with a necessary sense of national unity and moral purpose. But such a belief is not without consequences, the most prominent of which may be a curious approach to history. Certain interpretations of the past may become sacrosanct. When historians uncovered evidence suggesting that the bombings at Nagasaki and Hiroshima were as much a warning to the Soviet Union as a blow to Japan, and were perhaps...


    • 4 Race and Religion in National Identity
      (pp. 65-90)

      “If the situation is racial and religious, it is because the terrorists defined it that way—by race and religion.”¹ To most Americans, that observation by aNewsweekreader in late 2001 made all the sense in the world. September 11, they thought, had obviously brought race and religion to the fore. Yet that association was not inevitable. One could also imagine September 11 as an occasion to examine the legacy of colonialism, the wisdom of American global adventures, or several other external factors that might have motivated homicidal behavior. Intellectuals on the left tried, at least at first, to...

    • 5 The Punitive Turn
      (pp. 91-114)

      The collapse of jim crow and the mixed success of the civil rights movement did more than alter the meaning of equality, individualism, and the proper role of government in American life. It also corresponded with the rise of a very different national sentiment. Over the past fifty years, the United States has become an exceptionally punitive place, a change that has been abundantly documented.¹ Yet few have paid close attention to the relationship between the punitive turn in American life and the changing content of our national values. Through this transformation, the attachment to individualism has intensified as the...


    • 6 “A Fight for Our Principles”
      (pp. 117-133)

      Because national identity is made, it may also be preserved. Not every sudden shock will be welcomed as an occasion to reshape shared national values. Indeed, a more common reaction will be to preserve them unchanged and to resist whatever pressures may be brought to bear to alter their meaning. If things are as they ought to be, the first goal is generally to keep it that way. So it was with the immediate reaction to September 11. The attacks were instantly constructed as an assault on the Creed itself, on the values that define what it means to be...

    • 7 “We Need to Bring the News to People”
      (pp. 134-154)

      It was all well and good to say that September 11 was an attack on the shared values and traditions that represent what it means to be an American. But this could not be the last word. Questions naturally arose about what these principles meant and demanded in the new day. And it was all well and good to say that American Muslims and Arabs were not the enemy. But pronouncing what peoplewere notimplied a willingness to say what theywere, and to engage in the common if sometimes disreputable habit of imagining truths about the many from...

    • 8 “A War for the Survival of America”
      (pp. 155-182)

      Since the 9/11 attacks, there has never been a moment when the anti-Islamic narrative was absent from the public square. Even in the immediate aftermath, when the overwhelming majority of cultural elites united behind a message of tolerance and restraint, one could uncover virtually the entire gamut of post-9/11 anti-Islamic tropes. Yet the anti-Islamic narrative has become immeasurably more potent over the past decade, and in 2012 has come to enjoy a prominence and acceptance that was almost unimaginable ten years earlier. The range of allowable opinion has shifted unmistakably: What was once denounced as hate-filled bigotry now passes for...

    • 9 “Think the Unthinkable”
      (pp. 183-205)

      Because september 11 had been cast as an attack on the shared values and traditions of national identity, protecting and preserving these principles became the raison d’être for the war on terror. But just how strong was this attachment? What would happen when the nation faced a concrete test of its commitments? The test came sooner than anyone expected.

      Just as the attacks were immediately interpreted as an act of war, they were quickly cast as a particulartypeof war. The Holy Grail of America’s newest war quickly became more and better “intelligence.” By the evening of September 11,...

    • 10 “Can You Think of Anything More Un-American?”
      (pp. 206-229)

      By 2003 the torture debate had stalled. The federal government, at least outwardly, remained opposed to coercive interrogations. Torture continued to be a marker separating “us” from “them,” and resistance to it remained a potent symbol of American exceptionalism. On the day after Christmas 2002, theWashington Postreported that U.S. interrogators were using “stress and duress” techniques during interrogations overseas and that prisoners who did not respond to questioning could be sent to third countries for further interrogations. But the Bush administration repeated its insistence that it did not condone torture, and the disclosures passed largely unnoticed. At the...

    • 11 “Must We Sell Our Birthright?”
      (pp. 230-258)

      The welcome insistence by President Bush that Muslims and Arab-Americans were “us” was only half of his administration’s response to September 11. The second half, of course, was the complementary insistence that Islamist terrorists were “them,” the newest and most dangerous threat to confront the United States. The country was united in its resolution to rid itself of this new menace, but to do so in a way that preserved rather than transformed national identity. In this case, the national attachment was not to equality, religious liberty, and an expansive concept of community membership (the values most implicated in the...

    • 12 The Paradox of the Obama Era
      (pp. 259-285)

      Barack obama began his term backed by an apparent national consensus that his predecessor had badly misplayed his hand. By ignoring the rituals and limits of the punitive turn, the Bush administration had tried in its response to 9/11 to transform rather than preserve national identity, giving rise to a potent narrative about the rule of law and limited government. This narrative had grown by assimilating new developments as they arose. The fiasco in Iraq and the disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina, for instance, contributed to the view that the Bush team was so blinded by its ideology that it...

    • 13 All Will Be as It Ought to Be
      (pp. 286-292)

      So what changed when everything changed? It is certainly wrong to say that September 11 changed American values. At one level, our ideals have not changed for centuries and are not likely to change soon. We will always worship the same words and phrases—“liberty,” “equality,” the “rule of law,” “limited government,” “individualism,” and “community.” They may be the only constants in American life, connecting us to an imagined past and guiding us into an unknown future. We change only what these words represent—the meaning we assign to them, the space we give them in the public square, and...

  9. NOTES
    (pp. 293-357)
    (pp. 358-358)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 359-376)