As the nation marked ten years since the September 11, 2001 attacks, James Wallace Chair in Journalism Peter Laufer interviewed many of those he spoke to across the country on his original drive in September, 2001.

When American Airlines Flight 77 struck the Pentagon at 9:37 September 11, 2001, SOJC Professor and James Wallace Chair in Journalism Peter Laufer was in Washington for a meeting at the National Geographic Society.  The business meeting had already been canceled after planes struck the World Trade Center in New York City; he and his colleague were watching developments on CNN.

“I walked back to my hotel, crossed over the Key Bridge and saw the Pentagon burning,” he said. “The airports were closed, and the next day there were no flights, and still the next day there were no flights with no suggestion of when air travel might resume.  So I chose to rent a car and drive home.” 

Laufer lived in San Francisco at the time, and drove across the country back to the West Coast from September 15 to September 20, 2001. Realizing this was a pivotal moment in the nation’s history and that most attention would understandably be on Washington and New York, he decided to document reactions in the Heartland.  As he headed back to California he stopped frequently, interviewing Americans about the attacks and their responses to them.

After arriving home, Laufer deposited his footage and notes in a desk drawer, and posted the trailer editor Mark Allen produced from the footage on his website (peterlaufer.com). “I thought that the longer it sat there, the more potential value it might have because the passion of those interviews could never be replicated and as a society we tend to suffer from a short attention span,” he said. “That was a moment in time for America like no other.”

September 2011, as the U.S. marked the tenth anniversary of the attacks, Laufer recreated his 2001 journey interviewing many of those he spoke to during those chaotic days of his first trip.

Laufer’s dispatches filed on the road in 2011, which include still photographs and video footage, were published in the San Francisco Chronicle and on its website, sfgate.com. His trip was funded in part by the University of Oregon’s Summer Stipend for Humanities and Creative Arts Faculty sponsored by the Provost’s Office.

“I think we’re more split apart than we ever have been,” said D.C. psychiatrist Justin Frank in 2001, one of the people Laufer interviewed on both journeys. “I don’t feel that it’s a United States in the same way it was.”

Many of those interviewed in 2001 were concerned about U.S. policies in response to the attacks.  Ten years after most worries he heard had turned to the struggling economy. “The shock of what occurred is diminished by time and unfortunately the initial sense of human unity is faded,” said Laufer. “One of the things that struck me about making the trip the second time was the lack of a universal embracement of the government’s policies over the intervening ten years: the wars, the use of Guantanamo as an extra-territorial prison, the often-extreme security leading to Draconian restrictions such as no fly lists that aren’t published and can’t be appealed.”

“I believe strategically and tactically our responses to 9/11 were mistakes,” said Missouri journalist Charles Jaco, another person Laufer spoke to both in 2001 and 2011. Reflecting on 2001 ten years later he said, “We were all in this together. I would have thought things would have worked out better. I guess it’s the education of an idealist.”

During both journeys, Laufer spoke to some three dozen Americans. In 2011, he was able to find and interview about a third of the original group. On the second trip he found people “disappointed, deflated, often defeated and looking for diversion. I sensed a hopelessness that’s mixed with a good old American attitude of ‘let’s make the best of it.’ When they did talk about overarching themes of war and the economy, they bemoaned the status quo. But then, in the next breath, when I talked with them about their personal lives and their experiences with their friends and family, there was grand joie de vivre and the embracement of the continuing American dream. I didn’t come away from the trip with a negative feeling about our futures.”

Laufer worked with Matt Schmidt’s J408: Allen Hall Studios class to put together a documentary from the footage shot.  Produced by J408 member Rachel Bracker (class of 2012), the hour-long film is a chorus of distinct American voices singing from the open air of Heartland ad hoc stages.

Laufer’s commentaries during his trips note the stamina of Americans  “whether we’re shaking off the brutality of the attacks or the often insidious response by our own government, we shake off the bad news as best we can. We try to learn from it and get on with our lives. These are great survival tactics that we share as Americans.”

—Katie Dettman