Barack Obama at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum last May. (AFP PHOTO/Jewel SamadJEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

Thirteen years ago yesterday, the term "homeland" was something Americans used largely to apply to other people. It was refugees, immigrants, and the displaced who worried about their homelands; except in very specific contexts related to national defense -- about which most of us didn't worry very much -- Americans referred to America as "America," if there was reason to refer to the nation as an entity at all.

And then that changed.

In August of 2002, as the first anniversary of this horrible anniversary approached, The New York Times examined the history of a term that was then newly in vogue: "homeland security." "Homeland" itself is Biblical, the paper determined, when Abraham was instructed to lead his people to the moledet, or homeland. In modern usage, though, the term became commonplace during World War II. The Nazis referred to Germany as their heimat -- home or homeland. (Hence the title of that Times piece: "Prickly Roots of 'Homeland Security'.")

That usage is reflected in the Times' own coverage. Its Chronicle tool shows mentions of terms over time. "Homeland" peaked three times: During World War II, in the late 1970s, and in the wake of 9/11.

In between those peaks, the term was on an incline, largely thanks to the usage we articulated at the outset: displaced persons and refugees. The spike in the 1970s was focused on a particular homeland: the push for a homeland for Palestinians. This was a period during which tensions between Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel were increasing dramatically.


President George W. Bush announced his intention to create a "Department of Homeland Security" in late September 2001, linking the origination of the term to a 1997 study from a panel convened by Congress to consider the evolution of threats against America. That report, "Transforming Defense: National Security in the 21st Century," suggested that the United States shift its focus away from the threat posed by all-out military assault by other nations and instead to more subtle risks. "We can assume that our enemies and future adversaries have learned from the Gulf War," it reads. "They are unlikely to confront us conventionally with mass armor formations, air superiority forces, and deep-water naval fleets of their own, all overwhelming U.S. strength today. Instead, they may find new ways to attack our interests, our forces, and our citizens. They will look for ways to match their strengths against our weaknesses."

When the report was presented to Congress, the members of the panel suggested that the National Guard be refocused on domestic threats -- in other words, on homeland defense. In his campaign for the presidency, George Bush used Richard Armitage as an adviser on defense issues; Armitage had also served on the National Defense Panel mentioned above. In 1999, the Washington Times outlined parts of Bush's campaign proposals on the subject, including that he is "committed to building a homeland defense" -- albeit against ballistic missiles.

On September 5th, 2001, former Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) argued explicitly for "a comprehensive homeland security strategy" that extended beyond anti-missile defense. "Comprehensive homeland security, not merely the one element represented by missile defense," he said, "should be the focus of our efforts."

That was unusual. Before 9/11, the term wasn't used very much on Capitol Hill. As the Sunlight Foundation's Capitol Words project shows, there were a few other sporadic mentions in the run-up to the attacks, again largely focused on refugee and immigration issues. Then, the big spike.

On September 11th, 2001, President Bush didn't use the term when he addressed the nation after his return to Washington. "These acts of mass murder were intended to frighten our nation into chaos and retreat," he said. "But they have failed. Our country is strong. A great people has been moved to defend a great nation." That's the closest he got.

The phrase did come up, though. In an interview with the Associated Press, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) used the term explicitly. "It seems to me that with a concerted attack of this kind, there certainly had to be intercepts that would give us a heads-up," he said. "I don't mean to blame the intelligence community, but clearly this is another example that our homeland security is not safe. The oceans don't protect us anymore."

In an editorial titled simply "War," published the evening of the attack, The Post noted that it had been "60 years since the U.S. homeland sustained an aggression of this magnitude. The country responded then without panic but with an iron determination to defend itself and punish the aggressors. The response today must be as decisive ..."

The next day on Capitol Hill, the term "homeland" was common. Then-Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) kicked it off, railing against "the most violent, insane, cowardly acts that have ever been perpetrated on our homeland." Other senators joined him: Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), then-Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.), then-Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Ct.) and again Sen. Roberts. On the House side, then-Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) noted -- while urging restraint -- that "Congress' foremost obligation in a constitutional republic is to preserve freedom and provide for national security." But the day prior, "our efforts to protect our homeland came up short."

It's clear that there was something evocative about the term, combining a bit of military jargon with the idea in need of protection. This wasn't just America that was attacked, it was our homeland. We didn't simply need more security at our airports, we needed homeland defense. Cleland captured the sentiment well: "Many Americans are fearful today. They are fearful for the future of their homeland, their communities, their families. We do not deserve to live in fear." On September 20th, Bush addressed Congress and announced the Department of Homeland Security.

Four months after the attacks, the American Dialect Society held its annual vote for Word of the Year, focused on 2001. The group included "homeland" among its candidates. It lost to "9-11."

This post has been corrected with Rep. Skelton's correct political party.