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The Day That Changed the World

Five years after 9/11, the U.S. and the world are very different places

By Patricia Smith


We all remember where we were and what we were doing on Sept. 11, 2001, when 9/11 went from being just another date to a phrase that needs no explanation. From across the street or across the globe, we watched it all happen in real time. "It's like the day stood still," said Ed Lamm, who was working on Wall Street and witnessed the destruction in New York.

The horror began early that morning, when 19 Islamic terrorists hijacked four commercial airliners on a mission of death. Two planes were flown into the World Trade Center in New York, striking the twin 110-story-tall towers like missiles. By 10:30 a.m., both towers had collapsed.

An hour earlier, an American Airlines flight bound for Los Angeles was flown into the Pentagon outside of Washington, D.C. And a fourth flight, United 93, had crashed in rural Pennsylvania, brought down as passengers tried to retake the plane. Authorities believe this plane was supposed to fly into the White House.

In all, 3,056 people perished that day—more than the number who died in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and the highest one-day death toll on American soil since the Battle of Antietam during the Civil War.

But the damage went far beyond the death toll. The attacks seemed to change America's sense of security, our sense of invulnerability, even our attitude toward the world. And the attacks opened our eyes to the danger of Islamic terrorism. "September 11th was a foundational change; it woke us up to a new order in the world," says Michael Franc of the Heritage Foundation.

America Responds

The decade before the attack seemed peaceful. Military spending was reduced after the Soviet Union's collapse and the end of the Cold War, leaving the U.S. as the world's only superpower. In reality, the threat of radical Islam—including Al Qaeda, a global network of Islamic terrorists, led by Osama bin Laden and motivated by an intense hatred of America and its policies—was already building. But the warning signs, including the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, were largely ignored.

The response to 9/11 was swift, with President Bush declaring a war on terror. Citing the need for new rules of warfare to tackle a faceless, stateless enemy, the administration adopted two key strategies. First, taking pre-emptive action against potential threats, before attacks on the U.S. could be carried out. And second, actively promoting the spread of democracy around the world, especially in the Middle East, as a long-term antidote to terrorism. "Our war on terror begins with Al Qaeda, but it does not end there," President Bush said a week after the attacks.

A month later, with the support of a broad international coalition, the U.S. sent troops to Afghanistan to topple the repressive Taliban regime, which had harbored Al Qaeda, and a new democratic government was set up. While Al Qaeda lost its primary base of operations, bin Laden has still escaped capture, and Taliban and Al Qaeda holdouts continue to fight to regain power.

In January 2002, the U.S. began holding prisoners, many captured in Afghanistan, at Guantánamo Bay, an American base in Cuba. The U.S. designated them "enemy combatants," rather than prisoners of war, which would have made them subject to the Geneva Convention's international standards of treatment.

In March 2003, an American-led coalition invaded Iraq. President Bush portrayed the war as part of the larger fight against terror since officials believed Saddam Hussein had hidden weapons of mass destruction. (None have been found.) And in liberating Iraq from a ruthless dictator, the U.S. hoped democracy would take hold and spread elsewhere in the Middle East.

There were also many dramatic changes at home. President Bush created a new Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security, folding together agencies from the C.I.A. to the Coast Guard. The Patriot Act, signed into law a month after 9/11, gave law enforcement officials more power to fight terrorism. Some complained that the law impinged on civil liberties, but it was renewed earlier this year with only minor changes.

In 2002, Bush OK'd a surveillance program that allowed the National Security Agency to listen in, without warrants, on calls to and from the U.S. of those suspected of ties to Al Qaeda. The N.S.A. is also analyzing phone-company records of millions of calls to look for suspicious patterns. Critics say both programs are unconstitutional.

'Sense of Insecurity'

Five years after 9/11, Americans seem to have accepted that the war on terror will be an ongoing reality for the foreseeable future. We have largely adjusted to the idea of lurking threats. And the question of who can better protect the country from future attacks has become an often hotly debated feature of the political landscape.

"When you look at the 200-plus-year history of the U.S., you can't help draw the conclusion that this is a society driven by tremendous optimism," says Stephen Flynn of the Council on Foreign Relations. "What seems to be unique and worrisome is this growing sense of America as a vulnerable society. We are the dominant power, economically, culturally, certainly militarily, and yet there's a sense of insecurity."

Life in America today is different in ways large and small. Soldiers with automatic weapons in our airports, surveillance cameras on city streets, taking off your shoes before boarding a plane all now seem routine. And Muslim and Arab Americans say they have had to deal with an increase in racial profiling and hate crimes.

Historian Eric Foner notes that a heightened focus on security concerns, even at the expense of civil liberties, is a shift typical of wartime America. During World War I, the Sedition Act essentially stripped Americans of their First Amendment rights. During World War II, both citizens and the courts supported the internment of Japanese-Americans. "Now of course, it's seen as a great blight on American history," Foner says. "Similarly, I think future historians will see the erosion of civil liberties of the last few years as a reprehensible detour from the tradition of civil liberties in America."

Post-9/11 America seems more insular, more wary of the world. Last year's uproar over a Dubai-owned company taking over the operation of several American ports and the heated debate over illegal immigrants are two examples. "Our response has been to harden our borders and isolate ourselves from the bad world out there," says Flynn.

In the weeks after September 11, there was an outpouring of international support for the U.S. But since then, issues such as the Guantánamo detainees and events such as the abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq have tarnished America's image abroad, especially in the Muslim world.

William Schulz, former head of Amnesty International, argues that this has profound consequences for our ability to win the war on terror. For terrorists to succeed, he says, they need the financial and social support of a broader community, and when U.S. actions alienate those people, "it hands terrorists a present on a silver platter. It gives bin Laden the perfect excuse for rallying people against America."

No Attack Since

Still, there has not been another successful attack on American soil since 9/11, although Islamic terrorists have struck with deadly force elsewhere: Bali, Riyadh, Madrid, and London, for example. Many argue that the government and its new security measures deserve some credit.

But if there is a second attack, everything would change again, says Michael Franc of Heritage. "The tension you have now between civil liberties and security would alter fundamentally," he says. "More people will be willing to say we have to get security done correctly above all else before we worry about civil liberties.

"One attack may be an aberration, but two is a pattern," he adds. "And once you have a pattern, the psyche of the average American changes."