Optimists said we’d see Americans more interested and engaged in world affairs. We would all be more serious: Vanity Fair magazine editor Graydon Carter famously predicted “the end of the age of irony.”
Partisanship was out. Patriotism was in. Grim-faced experts forecast more terrorist attacks on U.S. soil and a backlash against Muslims.
In the aftermath of the attacks, Americans learned about anthrax—which turned out to have nothing to do with al-Qaeda—and Oregonians learned about the Portland Seven, a ragtag group of terrorist wannabes.
Although predictions about additional terrorist attacks on U.S. soil largely proved incorrect, and there have been fewer retaliatory hate crimes than some feared, over the past decade Oregon has seen what acting U.S. Attorney Dwight Holton calls a “disproportionate” number of terrorism investigations. Backlash against Muslims spikes after terrorism arrests, Holton says.
Portlanders’ ambivalence about terrorism investigations was evident in the City Council’s tortured deliberations earlier this year on whether to join the national Joint Terrorism Task Force. After being the only city among more than 100 to opt out under former Mayor Tom Potter, Portland tentatively joined the JTTF but only under highly specific conditions.
Whether or not they have prevented further attacks on America, post-9/11 security measures such as amped-up airport screening have persisted longer than the air of unity. Shortly after the attacks, Portland pollster Adam Davis conducted focus groups and surveys. “I saw an impact on public opinion that I’d never seen before,” Davis recalls. “It really galvanized people. It really drew people together.”
The sense of cohesion was short-lived. “It was an incredible period and as quickly as it came, it went away,” Davis says.
Today, Davis says, the level of alienation and partisan division is unparalleled. “People are more negative now than I’ve seen in 35 years of public opinion work,” he says.
After the attacks, patriotism—or at least its outward trappings—soared. The most tangible evidence of that may have been the Portlanders who flocked to the city’s largest flag seller, Elmer’s Flag and Banner on Northeast Broadway. Mike Hale, Elmer’s owner, says his business saw about a 250 percent increase in sales in the year following the attacks. But the next year, sales sagged below 2000 levels.
“There was just a saturation, I guess,” Hale says. Even the most ardent patriots need only so many flags.
Hale says he thinks that even though sales have returned to normal, Oregonians remain more patriotic than before the attacks. His typical customer used to be a veteran, he says, but that’s no longer the case. Although Oregonians wave the flag less than residents of other states, Hale says, he thinks they still feel a residual patriotism.
“After 9/11, I think people saw themselves more as Americans. I think that attack lingers in our minds. We’ve been attacked, and it could happen again,” the flag seller says.
Political science professor Jules Boykoff of Pacific University sees the issue of patriotism through a different lens—the willingness to dissent or willingness to question government policies such as the Patriot Act.
“If dissent is patriotic, it’s a little surprising we haven’t seen more demonstration, considering the wars and other things that are going on,” Boykoff says.
Boykoff says his research into the FBI’s tactics and President Barack Obama’s use of executive privilege to keep domestic surveillance programs under wraps make him pessimistic.
Compared to the 1960s, when college students energized the anti-Vietnam War movement, Boykoff sees little such activism and more focus on résumé-building. “There is a lot of student activity but it’s channeled into safer areas, perhaps because of economic concerns,” Boykoff says.
Although college students may be more focused on getting jobs than marching in the streets, there’s plenty of evidence in Portland they haven’t completely put away childish things. In a city where adults play kickball and ride tall bikes, it’s obvious that irony did not die.
Lewis & Clark College theater professor Stepan Simek says, if anything, irony is increasing. “There’s a certain solace that comes from seeing the underlying struggle in that fashion,” Simek says. “9/11 was horrific, but I think the understanding of the absurdity of the world as it exists is rising.”