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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...

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

  6. 6

    Pre-9/11 Mindset

    During the 2004 presidential election, Vice-President Dick Cheney repeatedly accused his Democratic opponent - John Kerry - of suffering from a deluded "pre-9/11 mindset." Here's a clip of Cheney making this very allegation, captured for posterity by "The Daily Show":

    George W. Bush even tried to cop the phrase at one of the presidential debates, but instead settled on accusing Kerry of a "pre-September 10th mentality," which doesn't quite have the same ring.

    The notion captured the attention of politicians and writers on both sides of the aisle. To Republicans, it came to stand for their overall critique of the weak, spineless Democratic party - unwilling even after a brutal attack on US soil to really engage with the enemy. To Democrats, it became emblematic of the Republicans desire to keep Americans living in fear, in order to manipulate them easier. The idea of having a "pre-9/11 mindset" or mentality became so entrenched, the term was still being used a full 10 9/11's after the infamous 2001 event.

  7. 7

    Freedom Fries


    In March of 2003, the US, along with allies from the UK, Australia and Poland, invaded Iraq in the hopes of toppling the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein. The government and people of France, however, expressed strong opposition to the plan at the time in the United Nations, thus earning them the ire of many Americans, and even inspiring a boycott of imported French goods and French businesses.

    On March 11th, 8 days before Operation Iraqi Freedom commenced, two Republican congressmen - Robert Ney of Ohio and Walter Jones Jr. or North Carolina - declared that all references to "France" on the menus of restaurants and snack bars in the House of Representatives should be removed. French fries being such a staple food, however, complicated matters, so it was decided that they would be renamed "freedom fries." (French toast was also nicknamed "Freedom Toast," but that never really took off as a concept." Ney and Jones issues a statement explaining the decision: "This action today is a small but symbolic effort to show the strong displeasure many on Capitol Hill have with our so-called ally, France." Take that, you cheese-eating surrender monkeys!

    Though there was some historical precedent (during WWI, sauerkraut was renamed "Liberty Cabbage" in the US), the move was largely mocked by the press, comedians and the public at large. It was suggested that American Cheese be renamed "idiot cheese," that turkey be renamed "Independence Bird" to disassociate itself with that country and even that all other words including the term "french" be changed - giving rise to phrases like "freedom kissing."

    Former Led Zeppelin lead singer Robert Plant also released a song called "Freedom Fries," criticizing the Bush administration, on his "Mighty ReArranger" LP in 2005. Check it out above.

  8. 8


    The term "weapon of mass destruction" - meaning a weapon capable of killing off a large number of humans, and decimating a wide area of natural or man-made environment - has been used in academic and political circles since the 1930s. The name itself, however, only really entered the public consciousness of Americans after 9/11, particularly during the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

    President Bush and numerous members of his executive team explained the need to eliminate the regime of Saddam Hussein by discussing his stockpile of WMDs. The unsuccessful search for WMDs in Iraq occupied much of the news coverage leading up to the war. (The Paul Greengrass film "Green Zone" with Matt Damon dramatizes the search for WMDs in the early days of the Iraq War.) Much of the discussion about media coverage of Iraq, and its impact on how Americans viewed the war, focused on the prevalence of the WMD argument.

    Additionally, the inability to find WMDs once US soldiers were on the ground in the country was a turning point in the American public's growing dissatisfaction with the war effort. Once it became clear that the weapons were not as prevalent and the threat of Iraqi WMDs not as pressing as it had initially seemed, parodies began to appear, including this Internet Explorer 404 page mock-up that for a time was the #1 Google result for the phrase "WMD." As well, Air America radio - a progressive talk network - used the catchphrase "Weapons of Mass Deception" to describe their political opponents, and a controversial 2003 EasyJet ad campaign referred to a woman's breasts as "weapons of mass distraction."

    Perhaps the most memorable parody was this interview between satirist Sacha Baron Cohen (portraying the character of simple-minded talk show host "Ali G") and American politician Pat Buchanan, about the dangers of Iraqi BLTs.

  9. 9

    We're At Orange Alert

    In March of 2002, the newly-formed Department of Homeland Security introduced an "advisory system" designed to alert Americans to the immediate risk of terrorist attacks. The system involved a color-coded chart, with five "terror alert levels," ranging from Green (Low) to Red (Severe). 4th on the list was Orange Alert (in other words, a High alert), which became something of a metonym for the entire chart.

    The color-coded terror alert system faced a lot of criticism on multiple fronts. People felt the "colors" were vague and didn't come tied to any specific suggestions or courses of action. Here's Butch Bradley expanding on the subject:

    Nevertheless, the phrase stuck as sort of an alternative (and, in most cases, milder) variation on the idea of a "red alert," and has become shorthand for describing the post-9/11 moment in America and the ways governments can sometimes, even unintentionally, terrify their citizens. The system was eventually abandoned in 2011, leading Conan O'Brien to suggest replacing it with "The Nicolas Cage Terror Alert":

  10. 10



    The phrase "enhanced interrogation techniques" and its sister phrase, "alternative set of procedures," have been used by the US government since the Bush years to mean brutal interrogation methods that don't necessarily equal torture. Bush stated emphatically that "the United States does not torture," but this leaves the door open - at least, grammatically - to a host of "enhanced techniques" that approach torture.

    Debates about the use of the techniques and their effectiveness have raged in America essentially since these tactics were first publicly explored in 2008. Much of the discussion goes back to memos written by John Yoo - from the White House Office of Legal Counsel - in the aftermath of 9/11. Yoo's so-called "torture memos" laid out how the president could legally authorize the use of enhanced interrogation techniques without technically violating the Geneva Conventions against the use of torture. Specifically, it argued that "waterboarding" - pouring water over the face of an immobilized captive to simulate drowning - was not torture.

    Ever since, waterboarding has become something of an American obsession. A number of writers and personalities have publicly undergone the procedure, attempting to determine whether or not it amounts to torture. The list includes conservative radio personality Erich "Mancow" Muller as well as political pundit and noted author Christopher Hitchens. And, of course, they both made videos. (Mancow's is above; Hitchens below. Both are sort of troubling to watch, so be warned.)

  11. 11

    Smoke Them Out of Their Holes

    "We will find those who did it. We will smoke them out of their holes. We'll get them running, and we'll bring them to justice." -- George W. Bush, Sept. 15, 2011.

    By 2003, when he was waging war in Iraq, George W. Bush's reliance on swagger - what some pundits would call his "John Wayne" style - started to cost him political points. (He memorably said of Iraqi militants attacking US forces "Bring 'em on" in July of 2003 and got a lot of heat for it.)

    But in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Americans rejoiced in hearing Bush's strong words for the nation's new enemies. During his memorable "bullhorn speech" at the still-smoldering remains of Ground Zero, Bush promised that the people who knocked down those buildings "will hear from all of us soon" to riotous applause and cheers.

    During a September 15th radio address, Bush promised to hunt down terrorists as part of a long, unrelenting war, and first used the "smoke them out of their holes" phrasing. Though Americans would grow weary of those conflicts in later years, right at that moment, it seemed just exactly what they wanted to hear.

    Once some time had passed and the US had failed to capture Osama bin Laden - the terrorist mastermind most closely associated with the 9/11 attacks - the "smoke them out of their holes" concept, which Bush had repeated often after his original 9/15 usage - started sounding more like bluster. Eventually, it became a key example of Bush's reliance on tough talk instead of effective policies. The Michael Moore documentary "Fahrenheit 911," for example, included a sequence of clips of Bush repeating his intention to "smoke 'em out" and mixed in clips from old, hokey movies in which fictional characters utilized the same phrasing.

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