9-11: Our safety no longer taken for granted

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 28, 2011

By Emily Ford
SALISBURY — Rowan County residents, like people across the United States, have seen profound change since the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.
Schools, hospitals, airports and other public places have beefed up security. There are more cameras, everywhere. We have less privacy and endure more hassle.
Rowan families have sent soldiers to fight in two wars. Some did not return.
But did 9/11 also change us in ways we can’t see? Are we more fearful? Less tolerant? More united? More divided? More watchful? More religious? More partisan? More patriotic?
Do we feel safer? Do we travel less? What have been the long-lasting effects of Sept. 11 on Rowan and Salisbury residents?
On the 10th anniversary of the day that changed America, two mayors, two professors, a pastor and a nonprofit director talk about how that day also changed Rowan County.
Forever changed
As four hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania, America’s innocence went up in the same flames. Any inherent protection Americans felt dissolved as terrorists who lived among us turned passenger jets into bombs and aimed them at the country’s most symbolic buildings.
“Sept. 11 changed America forever,” said Margaret Kluttz, former Salisbury mayor and director of development for Hood Theological Seminary. “We will never be the same.”
Obvious changes include pat downs at the airport, new traffic patterns in Washington, D.C., heightened awareness of suspicious-looking packages and, sometimes, people.
“We’re all forced into new habits and new patterns of behavior because of what happened,” said David Setzer, executive director for the Robertson Family Foundation. “I pay more attention to international events and international news than maybe I used to.”
Americans used to take their safety, and their place in the world, for granted.
“But we can’t anymore,” Setzer said.
Suddenly forced into a world shared by other countries that have endured terror attacks for years, Americans felt vulnerable for the first time in generations.
“The most significant impact on Rowan County is the recognition of the fact that we live in global society where safety is compromised by a form of violence that we refer to as terrorism,” said Dr. Sanford Silverburg, retired political science professor at Catawba College.
Although it wasn’t the first time the country was attacked on U.S. soil, never before had Americans experienced an attack together, in real time. The ability to watch horrific events unfold on live TV and the immediacy of information in the days following the attacks fueled fear.
Rowan residents were scared. The period after 9/11 was reminiscent of the Cold War in the 1950s, Silverburg said.
“Now we had the same type of fear, not of Russians coming to bomb us, but the fear that there was a terrorist behind every door,” he said. “That type of fear immobilized us.”
Not for long. People began traveling again, and in the decade following the terror attacks, local residents have grown accustomed to increased security. People are no longer fearful, but they are more cautious, aware and vigilant.
It’s now considered a civic duty to report a package abandoned on a city street.
“We are not more fearful,” Kluttz said. “We’re just less naive about the reality that we are vulnerable.”
Ramped-up security measures have instilled greater confidence that public places will remain safe, said Mary Ponds, mayor of Granite Quarry. Vigilance, however, has slipped, and people are becoming complacent again, she said.
“We kind of drop our guard after a while,” Ponds said.
Similarly, people have lost some of the empathy and community spirit they showed in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.
“We run to the cause, but as soon as the cause has been remedied, that’s as long as we stay,” she said. “We need to be more committed.”
Day of reckoning
Some parents pulled their children out of school on Sept. 11. People called family members nowhere near the crash sites just to hear their voices.
“It really was a day of reckoning for me in many ways personally,” Kluttz said, “because I realized how precious every minute that we are given is, and especially when it comes to being with family and friends and those people who you really care about.”
When the terrorists struck, the Rev. Dr. Nilous Avery was in Virginia, surrounded by Naval personnel and flight attendants.
“To feel their heartbrokenness, it was as if I was part of the family,” said Avery, pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church.
The events of 9/11 “gave me a greater sense of life and a greater respect for life and an understanding that life is fleeting, very frail,” he said. “And that in one moment, in an instant, things can change.”
If there is a good side to Sept. 11, Kluttz said, it’s that the experience made people take a good look at their friends and family and even expand their sphere, becoming more accepting and forgiving. As 9/11 proved, life is full of negative circumstances we can’t control, she said.
People felt the urge to make a difference and found the opportunity right here, within their own families and their own community. In the aftermath of the attacks, Rowan residents became more unified, Ponds said.
“I think it has, in a sense, brought us closer as a community and as a group of people who can work together,” she said.
Rowan County was changing even before Sept. 11, 2001, said Dr. Gary Freeze, history professor at Catawba College. The attacks accelerated trends already under way, he said.
“What the tragedy in New York did was make people aware that times were changing and they were going to change with them, whether they liked it or not,” Freeze said.
Freeze teaches his students that 9/11 was one incident in a long period of transition as the world entered a post-industrial age. As textile mills and factories closed and new ways of getting information became dominant in people’s lives, the terror attacks forced the United States to face up to new global realities, he said.
“The immediate reaction to 9/11 was not so much patriotism as a sort of sadness at what was being lost, not just personal lives but also the fact that a way of life was undergoing transformation,” Freeze said. “What has happened in the last 10 years is that we in Rowan County have been subsumed into this great transformation.”
Freeze compares 9/11 to other tragedies and subsequent renewal in United States history, with analogies to Fort Sumter and the Civil War, as well as Pearl Harbor and World War II. Starting with the Revolutionary War, America has been attacked roughly every 70 years and has always recovered, he said.
“The horror of people dying in that manner was not predictable, but the fact that the United States would be under attack was,” Freeze said. “History does repeat itself, and we can learn from it.”
In the wake of Sept. 11 and two wars waged, “we are going through the same kinds of problems that other generations did,” he said. “And what I take heart in is that they figured it out, and we can too.”
Political extremism
Rowan County, like America, is more partisan and less tolerant after 9/11, Silverburg said. Most residents probably now support enhanced interrogation techniques like waterboarding, he said.
“It very definitely has led to Islamophobia and less tolerance for non-Europeans,” he said.
Increased political zeal and polarization have pushed some people to political extremism. As it has done in other national tragedies, fear led to a political shift nationally and in Rowan after 9/11, Silverburg said.
“If you look at times when people are afraid and scared, they would easily give up freedom for security,” he said.
Politicians on the far right have more often invoked God, national security and patriotism, promising protection to Americans afraid of another terrorist attack and giving rise to an ultra-conservative political movement that has more credibility than it might otherwise.
Since Sept. 11, politicians are more likely to say what they think people want to hear, Ponds said.
“If we had no source of fear, if we weren’t so anxiety-ridden as we are today, the Tea Party movement and the far right would not have the influence they have,” Silverburg said.
The terror attacks and changing political climate has made people more strident and passionate about their causes, Kluttz said.
“We’re all a little bit edgier, and edgy can be good and bad,” she said.
People who were opinionated before 9/11 are probably more opinionated now, she said. Those who were prone to find ways to make a difference in their community may try even harder.
While Salisbury saw growth and development in the decade following 9/11 thanks to partnerships between government and the private sector, many communities couldn’t pull it off due in part to the cost of the war on terror, Kluttz said. The attacks and the country’s response to them made resources scarce for many cities and counties, and local leaders had to set new priorities.
Tougher debates can lead to a better society, Kluttz said.
“We are just going to have to mature as people who are less naive and figure out how to deal with some very tough issues, and still be giving and caring and open and making a difference,” she said.
Disturbing intolerance
What started as patriotism after the terror attacks has sometimes turned to intolerance.
“There are people here who have tended to look at others not as humans, but by party or by race or culture, and that’s been a little disturbing,” Avery said. “But the majority of people sense that we are our brother’s keeper.”
The country was united in the first days after 9/11. In Rowan County, there was an outpouring of help for the less fortunate. Church attendance spiked, and people became more empathetic and generous.
However, as people began speaking out against the war or the loss of personal freedom at home, the unity became division. Eventually, some who had turned to religion for comfort after the terror attacks turned away.
“We are even more divided now than before 9/11,” Avery said. “We have become intolerant not only of Islam but of people whose ideas are different than ours.”
For the most part, local leaders have done a good job of modeling tolerant behavior, Avery said. Across the community, people need to disagree without disowning each other, he said.
“We have to be more open-minded and willing to respect each other’s opinions,” he said.
Just as they did in the days and weeks following Sept. 11, people should take stock of the gifts they’ve been given and live accordingly, Ponds said.
“We need to relish the good things that are around us and to be more appreciative of that which we are given each day and not take so many things for granted,” she said. “We should be more like God wants us to be. It’s not about us, it’s all about those who are around us.”
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.