Ten years after 9/11: how our world changed
Students and faculty at a candlelight service Sept. 25, 2001, a memorial for the victims of the Sept. 11 attack.
Immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Americans felt a range of emotions from patriotism to disbelief, anger and fear.
A decade later, the intensity of emotions has subsided for many. But the gravity of the day, when 2,977 victims died, has had long-lasting consequences.
UIC experts share their thoughts on the ways that 9/11 continues to affect our nation.
Keeping an eye on terrorism
Could al-Qaeda coordinate another large-scale terrorist event like 9/11?
Probably not, says Matthew Lippman.
“Al-Qaeda as a central organization that has influence over national groups that no longer is the case,” said Lippman, professor of criminology, law and justice. “It always was really a coalition of groups, but now those groups are much more independent and pursuing their own goals.
“What you have is a lot more decentralized and a lot more difficult to combat across the globe.”
Since the coordinated plane attacks on the Twin Towers and Pentagon, as well as the failed attack on Washington, D.C., that ended with a plane crash in a Pennsylvania field, activity has largely been conducted by “home-grown” terrorists, Lippman said.
“These are people who fly under the radar of intelligence,” he said.
Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, for instance, claimed responsibility when a man boarded a flight from Amsterdam en route to Detroit on Dec. 25, 2009, and tried to detonate explosives hidden in his underwear. The Pakistani Taliban, an ally of al-Qaeda, claimed responsibility after an attempted car bombing in Times Square on May 1, 2010.
“The Times Square bomber didn’t know what he was doing, the underwear bomber didn’t know what he was doing,” Lippman said. “Time and time again we’ve been fortunate in avoiding a really serious terrorist event in this country.”
Two other threats may be more dangerous than al-Qaeda nuclear and cyber attacks, Lippman said.
“There are enough countries out there with nuclear material, and that’s probably the big nightmare scenario,” he said.
“We have very bad defenses against cyber terrorism and you could paralyze a whole city with terrorist attacks through the Internet. If someone took out all the air traffic control systems and you have all of these planes up there, what would you do?”
America’s response to 9/11
When Linda Skitka asked Americans how they felt immediately after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, they responded by expressing their anger and fear.
“People who were angry wanted to strike out about 30 percent said something like, ‘We should just nuke them,’” said Skitka, professor of psychology.
She wanted to find out if the people who were so angry would be politically intolerant of groups such as Americans of Arab descent.
She was surprised by what she found.
“People who responded with fear and engaged in value-affirming activities, such as flying the American flag, became more politically tolerant of these groups over time,” she said.
Some Americans found a renewed sense of nationalism, donating blood and money to charities. But this generosity hasn’t endured, she said.
“The pro-social responses that people had to 9/11, those petered out and now there are some more negative consequences,” she said.
In 2000, there were only about 10 hate crimes reported in the U.S. against Muslims and Arab Americans, she said. After 9/11, the number of hate crimes spiked, she said.
“What’s been interesting and kind of sad is that although the hate crime data has gone down it’s not as bad as 9/11 it has not gone down anywhere near the levels before 9/11,” she said.
A boost in bioterrorism preparedness
Mark Dworkin knows firsthand that Illinois is more prepared to handle a terrorist attack than it was in 2001.
Dworkin was the state epidemiologist for the Illinois Department of Public Health from 2000 to 2006. His job changed after 9/11.
“From Sept. 12 forward and for the next several years, 95 percent of my time was devoted to emergency preparedness and response activities,” said Dworkin, associate professor of epidemiology.
“The threat of bioterrorism remains it’s impossible to quantify but it can’t be ignored.”
Federal funding was sent to help states boost their emergency response programs, especially after the anthrax attacks of 2001, which started a week after 9/11 and lasted for several weeks. Letters containing anthrax spores which carry a lethal bacterial disease were mailed to several news offices and two U.S. senators. Five were killed and 17 others were infected.
Public health workers now have a deeper knowledge of relatively uncommon pathogens, especially after the anthrax attacks. State labs can more quickly detect human and environmental evidence of bioterrorism pathogens and chemical materials, Dworkin said.
“The state is way more prepared now that it was in 2001,” he said. “Many staff have undergone training that exposes them to the complicated decision making that is needed when dealing with an evolving bioterrorism emergency.”
Still, states need more federal dollars to support emergency preparedness programs, Dworkin said. Other threats should be examined, such as the spread of communicable diseases.
Is 9/11 still on Americans’ minds?
After 9/11, Judith Richman changed her research focus.
Already in the middle of a workplace-related mental health study, she redirected her questions to analyze people’s sociopolitical outlook after the terrorist attacks.
What she found was that in 2005 four years after the attacks Americans’ terrorism-related fears were still associated with increased depression, anxiety, hostility, post-traumatic stress and drinking. Both women and men reported consuming alcohol more frequently, but men showed a greater likelihood of drinking to intoxication, said Richman, professor of epidemiology in psychiatry.
Her most recent research, conducted from 2009 to 2011, shows that another event the economic recession has replaced the 9/11 attacks as a top cause of stress for Americans.
Richman’s current work, conducted with the UIC Survey Research Lab, included focus groups of people who were white, African American, Hispanic and Arab American Middle Easterners of Arab descent.
“While the other groups were totally focused on the economy, the group of Americans of Arab descent was equally focused on the experience they had as a result of looking Muslim and Arab and being discriminated against,” Richman said.
“In terms of the effects of 9/11, the strongest stressor was discrimination.”
Still, the 9/11 attacks aren’t completely off Americans’ minds. When an earthquake rocked the East Coast Aug. 23, the initial reaction for many was whether the shaky ground they felt was caused by a terrorist attack, Richman said.
“When unexpected things happen, especially in areas where people feel particularly affected by the possibility of another attack, 9/11 comes to mind,” she said. “But in general, the economy is a far more salient aspect of people’s lives now.”
Today's undergrads: what does 9/11 mean for them?
Below: students, faculty and staff gather for a memorial service on the east campus on Sept. 14, 2001. The crowd overflowed the Illinois Rooms of Student Center East.
Photo: UIC Photo Services