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"America realized that it was vulnerable"

6 Sep 2021

LMU’s Professor Christof Mauch, a specialist in American Studies, was in Washington D.C. on 11 September 2001. In this interview, he recalls his personal experiences on the day, and reflects on how American society reacted to a national trauma.

Professor Christof Mauch | © Martin Hangen

Herr Professor Mauch, where were you when you first learned of the attacks on 11 September 2001?

Professor Christof Mauch: I was in my office in the German Historical Institute in downtown Washington. We had scheduled a discussion with about a dozen colleagues. Just before the session began, a shocked office manager informed us that an airliner had crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center. Soon after that, another colleague arrived and reported a further accident, in which the second tower had been hit. It seems incredible now – but at first we all remained relatively calm. We were somewhat disturbed, but the meeting continued. New York is a few hundred miles from Washington, and none of us had any inkling of a terrorist attack at the time. But that suddenly changed when we heard that a third plane had attacked the Pentagon – only a few miles from where we were sitting.

How did you experience the rest of the day in Washington?

First, I called my family – my wife in the Holocaust Museum, our au pair and the children at home, then the German Embassy and the Goethe Institute. One member of the Embassy staff mentioned that smoke could be seen over the Pentagon. I gave the staff of the Institute the rest of the day off, and I had to apologize for the fact that I had not immediately realized the gravity of the attacks. We had no TV set in the Institute at the time and, in the absence of visual evidence, the reports could not convey the horror of what had happened – as we realized when we were later confronted with the images, over and over again.

Incidentally – there is one detail that is not mentioned in any history book. Since that day, on the orders of George W. Bush, in every ministry in Washington, the TV is always on, and it’s always tuned to the conservative channel Fox News. From then on, it was impossible to visit any department without passing TV sets tuned to Fox News. That only changed after Obama became President.

Now, when 9/11 is mentioned, it is often followed by the words “national trauma”. Is that how you see it?

Yes. What happened on 9/11 provoked a textbook trauma. It was a shocking blow to America’s self-awareness, in many respects worse than that caused by any comparable event. The US has suffered its fair share of trauma in the course of its history. In the Civil War in the 19th century, Americans had fought other Americans, and ravaged the country from within. One hundred years later came the defeat in Vietnam, and the American people could not comprehend how they could have lost such a war, despite many losses and in light of their military superiority.

What made 9/11 so different?

America itself was targeted – and that had happened only once before, at Pearl Harbor in 1941. In that case, the aggressor, Japan, was itself a formidable power, but one could retaliate militarily. On 9/11, the perpetrators of the attacks were still unknown. So the US could not declare war on them and punish them by bombing their bases, as in a conventional war. Moreover, the very fact that the attacks had been carried out with relatively unsophisticated resources – with ‘improvised’ weapons – deeply wounded America’s self-image. The terrorists came from one of the poorest countries in the world, and for the American population they were not really on the radar. But they had the US in their sights. – In a sense, they were a more globalized force than America itself. They had assaulted the greatest and proudest economic power on the planet at two highly symbolic points – the World Trade Center and the Department of Defense.

How have the events of that day altered American society?

That is an interesting and a difficult question. The impact of such transformative events only becomes apparent over the longer term. The most immediate effect was that America realized that it was vulnerable. This gave rise to a general feeling of anxiety and disorientation, and to a renewed sense of common purpose – patriotism. American flags appeared everywhere, in front gardens and on vehicles. And this sense of national cohesion was palpable. The events of 2001 also led to a brief period of reconciliation between the political parties. Following the country’s defeat in Vietnam, the parties had sharply attacked one another, blaming each other for the outcome. In 2001, the opposite happened. Parties no longer counted, only America mattered, and George W. Bush suddenly became popular. – At least, nobody dared to denigrate or criticize him, and this mood persisted for some time.

The economic consequences of the attacks were also significant. If I remember correctly, studies have shown that the resulting losses were on the order of 800 to 900 billion dollars. Friends of mine lost their business – a firm that printed catalogs for travel agencies. Nobody was willing to travel abroad, so the agencies couldn’t pay their bills. As a result, my friends were reduced from millionaire status to dependence on welfare. They moved to a part of the country where nobody knew them. They lived in a tin-roofed house, and the husband delivered pizzas.

Former police officer mourns in frot of the National September 11 Memorial

A former police officer mourns a relative who died as a firefighter in the South Tower collapse at the National September 11 Memorial.

© IMAGO / UPI Photo

Are the after-effects of 9/11 still perceptible today?

The collective state of anxiety triggered on that day is still palpable and indeed visible. In the aftermath of the attacks, more restrictive security measures were introduced at all levels. First, airline passengers were forbidden to take liquids on board, and body scanners were introduced later on. Aircraft were suddenly regarded not as a means of getting from one place to another, but as potential weapons of mass destruction. Many of the measures that were introduced at airports are still in force today.

I believe that, 20 years later, the country is still united by the memory of that tragic day. But it is split over the question of the political lessons and consequences that should be drawn. Left- and right-wing Americans differ in their views of the events. For example, the attacks are used as an argument for tightening immigration restrictions, and that played a role in Trump‘s border wall and in the rollback of rights in general.

Shortly after the attacks, certain basic rights were withdrawn upon the passage of the Patriot Act. Would such a step have been conceivable prior to 9/11?

The USA is often regarded as a beacon of freedom. But in the 200 years and more since it came into being, it has repeatedly restricted the exercise of basic rights. The Alien and Sedition Acts are one example – four laws that were passed in 1798, one of which has never been repealed. Their aim was to make it easier to arrest and deport migrants. At that time, influential political circles had become suspicious of French and Irish immigrants, who were accused of propagating nefarious ideas and pursuing rebellious goals. – During World War I, basic rights of German Americans were drastically curtailed, and in the Second World War the Japanese who had settled in Western States were interned.

So the Patriot Act was not that exceptional?

The US Patriot Act abruptly gave the government access to bank accounts and other financial data without the knowledge of the account-holders – and even the power to search homes without a warrant. It's really novel feature was that it targeted the whole of the population. Almost all of the surveillance provisions and criminal investigations that were included in the Patriot Act had been on the wish-lists of members of Congress long before 9/11. Six weeks after the attacks, the whole legislative package was passed virtually without opposition. Bush applied pressure, and very few members of Congress can have had the time to read the text, let alone consider its implications. The Patriot Act was replaced by the Freedom Act of June 2015. That piece of legislation now allows only targeted and judicially sanctioned phone-tapping operations.

How has the USA addressed this national trauma in the past 20 years?

About 10 years ago, a memorial to the victims was built on the site of the World Trade Center, and this was later supplemented by an underground Memorial Museum, in which tens of thousands of images, artefacts and videos are archived. One can visit the Museum in person or online. The digital collection of paintings and poems, sculptures, photographs and music is quite unique. Amateur and professional artists of all ages and from all parts of the US have donated works to the institution. Will this help to heal the wound? I believe that artists are careful and sensitive observers, and that art can keep memories alive. But coming to terms with national traumata is a very complicated process.

In other words, a long-term process?

Definitely! After all, the trauma of the Civil War has still not been laid to rest, even after 150 years, as revealed by the recent disputes over memorials to the Confederacy’s military leaders in the Southern States. There is no sign that the trauma of 2001 is subsiding. On right-wing media like Fox News, the attacks are regularly cited to justify hardline policies against Islam in general, for example. Islam has more than a billion adherents worldwide, and about 3.5 million Muslims live in the US. Falling back on stereotypes and reducing cultural and political entities to single categories like race, religion or geographical origin are far too simplistic responses to complex realities, and they continue to aggravate the nation’s wounds.

What lessons can be drawn from the way in which the USA has dealt with the legacy of 9/11?

Subsequent to 11 September, there was a lot of talk about freedom. Within days, President Bush declared that “freedom itself is under attack”. He described the enemies of America as “enemies of freedom”. The operation in Afghanistan was named “Enduring Freedom”, and the war against Iraq was “Operation Iraqi Freedom". At the same time, civil rights were being trampled on in Guantánamo. We in the West do not have an exclusive claim on freedom and tolerance. The measures that were taken in “the war on terror” demonstrated that, in response to a crisis, democracy itself can be put at risk.

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Read the interview with Michael Hochgeschwender

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Christof Mauch holds a Chair in the History of American Culture at LMU, and became Director of the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in 2009. From 1999 until 2007, he served as the Director of the German Historical Institute in Washington, D.C.

"A war that was impossible to win" : See also the accompanying interview with Professor Michael Hochgeschwender on the international significance of 9/11.

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