The 11 Ways 9/11 Changed How We Talk Historical Events
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The 11 Ways 9/11 Changed How We Talk

"Everything changed on 9/11." This was a phrase that you heard a lot in America in the days and weeks following the September 11th terrorist attacks of 2001. There was a strong feeling of unity among citizens of the US, as well as a sense that the nation couldn't go back to the frivolity and thoughtlessness that had pervaded public life before the attacks.

Of course, as time progressed, it was clear that 9/11 hadn't really changed EVERYTHING. The newspaper editorials declaring the "death of irony" became suddenly ironic, other stories about non-terrorism started to creep back into the news and most Americans went back to obsessing about the things that had preoccupied them before 9/11 - work, bills, relationships, school, Pokemon and so forth.

But more than a decade later, we are starting to get a clearer picture of all the things that 9/11 really did change. Obviously, there are the significant global events that may not have come to pass if Al Qaeda had never flown planes into the Twin Towers - primary among them the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. But there are a lot of more subtle cultural shifts that happened in America in the aftermath of 9/11.

This is a list of the ways that 9/11 impacted American language and speech, phrases that were introduced to the lexicon in the aftermath of that terrible day and have, for good or bad, stuck with us and joined the pantheon of American slang and argot. Now let's roll...
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  1. 1

    ...Then The Terrorists Have Won

    In the weeks that followed September 11th, there was an idiomatic turn of phrase that kept turning up in conversation. It typically took the form of: "If [some course of undesired action takes place], then the terrorists have won." (A common form would be "If we all start living in fear, then the terrorists have won.") By November of 2001, the LA Times was reporting hundreds of articles had been published including the phrase "then the terrorists have won."

    It didn't take long for this somewhat condescending, even a bit nonsensical idea to become a punchline. When hosting the Emmys in early November 2001, Ellen DeGeneres commented "We're told to go on living our lives as usual, because to do otherwise is to let the terrorists win, and really, what would upset the Taliban more than a gay woman wearing a suit in front of a room full of Jews?" The above David Cross clip, from his 2002 comedy special and album "Shut Up You F**king Baby!," also parodies the homily, implying that people were using the idea of "defeating the terrorist" to congratulate themselves on things they were already doing.

  2. 2

    Never Forget

    About a week after 9/11, American life slowly began returning to a state of normalcy. By September 18th, businesses were active again (though the stock suffered a record one-day loss upon reopening), air travel had resumed (at diminished capacity), and it looked like the country was going to go on, largely as it always had.

    Many commentators who felt that Americans were in danger of returning to complacency urged them to "never forget" what had happened on 9/11, and to hold on to their anger and fear long enough to take bold, decisive action against the terrorist groups who had attacked New York and Washington. (For example, the July 10th, 2001, invasion of Afghanistan by British and American forces.)

    The "Never Forget" admonition thus entered popular culture in a big way, finding homes on T-shirts, bumper stickers, coffee mugs, websites and anywhere else political messaging could be placed. Often, it was accompanied by images of the actual Twin Towers burning, but other times it would just be dressed up with an American flag, say, or a bald eagle. Or a combination of these things:



    As with many of the immediate post-9/11 additions to the American cultural fabric, "Never Forget" suffered something of a backlash in the ensuing years, particularly as some Americans started to feel the country had perhaps overreacted to 9/11, or just acted in ways that didn't really serve the nation's best interests. You could almost say that over-use of phrases like "Never Forget" actually caused people to stop taking 9/11 as seriously, thus bringing about the very complacency and lack of concern about national security that they were trying to prevent. Don't believe me? I've got a T-shirt to prove it!

  3. 3

    Let's Roll

    Todd Beamer was a passenger on United Airlines Flight 93, one of four planes hijacked on 9/11 by terrorists who intended to crash them into buildings or landmarks. After terrorists had taken over control of the plane, Beamer used an in-plane cell phone to report the incident, and wound up in customer service hell.

    After learning from people on the ground that other hijacked planes had been flown into the World Trade Center, Beamer and some other passengers heroically decided to take on the hijackers and fly the plane into the ground before it could be used as a weapon. The last words Beamer spoke that were heard by people on the ground were: "Are you guys ready? Let's roll." Beamer and his fellow passengers were ultimately successful, and the plane crashed into a field near Shankseville, Pennsylvania, before it could make it to its target (thought to be the Capital Building in Washington DC.)

    "Let's roll" became a catchphrase almost immediately after 9/11. President Bush used it during a speech to AmeriCorps volunteers as well as in his 2002 State of the Union address. The Air Force placed an image of an eagle, a flag and the phrase on all USAF demonstration planes. It became the title of a book by Todd's widow, Lisa Beamer. It was used as a joke in an episode of "Curb Your Enthusiasm," when Larry David inadvertedly uses it while speaking to a rabbi who lost family in the 9/11 attack, and in the film "In the Loop," when a British politico inadvisedly uses it while visiting America.




    And "Let's Roll" also inspired a number of songs, including LA Guns' "OK, Let's Roll," The Bellamy Brothers "Let's Roll, America," dc Talk's "Let's Roll" and the Neil Young song, "Let's Roll," told from Beamer's perspective.

  4. 4

    Homeland Security

    America was very shaken up by the tragedy. It affected everything from people going to work/school, to important events and even your every day entertainment. Here's Jon Stewart's first broadcast after the planes hit the towers.



    Everyone was so scared at the time that Bush created an entirely new part of the government.

    In 2002, the administration of George W. Bush started rearranging and reorganizing a number of US government agencies. Much of this was done in response to the observation that America's intelligence-gathering was disorganized and fragmented, and that a better government response may have been able to thwart the 9/11 terrorist attack.

    The new agency that was formed became known as The Department of Homeland Security, introducing the phrase to the majority of Americans. The agency, at last count, includes over 187 smaller federal agencies and departments, including the Coast Guard, FEMA, US Customs and Border Protection, and the Secret Service.

    The term "Homeland Security" today encompasses emergency preparedness, domestic and international intelligence gathering, infrastructure protection, border security (including marine borders), transportation security, biodefense, detection of radioactive threats and research into next-generation security technologies. It is now a universally applied term meaning "the defense of the nation," and agents of The Department of Homeland Security have become fixtures in film and television.

    In the Fox series "Fringe," for example, the group's "Fringe Division" is a part of the Department of Homeland Security. The Marvel films introducing another mysterious government agency - S.H.I.E.L.D. - have also played around with the notion of "Homeland Security," turning the group's acronym into "Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division."

  5. 5

    The Axis of Evil

    George W. Bush introduced the phrase "axis of evil" in his 2002 State of the Union speech, using it to refer to the nations of Iraq, Iran and North Korea. (According to Bush, these nations earned their place in the "Axis" - notable as it was also the colloquial name of the united powers America faced off against during WWII - by helping terrorists and seeking weapons of mass destruction.) The phrase has been attributed to Bush's then-speechwriter David Frum, who apparently had originally come up with "axis of hatred."

    The phrase was criticized heavily over the course of Bush's presidency, for ignoring the many other nations that commit "evil" but, for whatever reason, weren't included on the list, for implying without evidence that these nations were cooperating in some kind of villainous conspiracy, or just for using the phrase "evil" to describe entire countries. It inspired a number of other phrases, including a speech by UN Ambassador John Bolton called "Beyond the Axis of Evil," a speech by Condoleezza Rice about "Outposts of Tyranny" and other formulations such as the Axis of Belligerance, the Colonialist Axis and the Axis of Diesel.

    It also became the subject of numerous parodies, comedy sketches and jokes. Too many to name here. Perhaps most notably, Will Ferrell appears as George W. Bush on "Saturday Night Live" mocking the State of the Union speech and the "Axis of Evil" concept specifically.

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