The most stunning attack ever made on the United States took place on the morning of September 11, 2001. Nineteen members of the al-Qaida terrorist network hijacked four commercial airliners, crashing two into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and one into the Pentagon in Washington. The fourth plane crashed in rural Pennsylvania. Thus began a new global conflict, a "war on terror," that had profound effects upon American society, culture, and role in world affairs.
The plot was concocted by a veteran jihadist named Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a Kuwaiti from a religious family who had attended college in the United States, which he hated violently. He had helped his nephew plan the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. In 1996 he went to Afghanistan to join forces with al-Qaida, headed by Osama bin Laden. It approved his scheme in 1999 and supplied guidance, collaborators, training, safe houses, and about $500,000 to finance the operation. All of the plotters were Arabs, most from Yemen or Saudi Arabia; some were recruited in Germany. The key hijackers entered the United States legally in 2000. The plan was to attack the World Trade Center as the symbol of capitalism, the Pentagon as the symbol of American power, and the Capitol or White House as the source of American political authority.
The four hijackings were timed to be simultaneous. "Muscle men" overpowered and killed stewards and pilots with box cutters smuggled past airport security, while new pilots turned off the automated electronic signals and flew the planes, each loaded with over 20,000 gallons of fuel, toward the targets. The Air Force defense system, NORAD, did have a few F-15 fighter planes available, but no one had planned for airliners turned into weapons of mass destruction. Communication breakdowns meant that the Air Force was unable to intercept the first three
planes. The fourth plane's takeoff was delayed and passengers on board learned by cell phone what the other airliners had done. They organized themselves spontaneously and rushed the hijackers, who deliberately crashed the plane before reaching Washington. For years afterward the nation searched for overlooked clues.
Amidst the millions of bits of evidence there was no smoking gun—no decisive piece of information that if understood and acted upon beforehand could surely have prevented the disaster.
On most days 50,000 people worked at the World Trade Center, and another forty thousand had appointments there. The two planes struck at 8:46 a.m. and 9:03 a.m. when the buildings, 110 stories tall, were only half full. The towers survived the impact of the huge aircraft, but the burning fuel weakened their steel support systems and both collapsed straight down, leaving a gigantic hole in lower Manhattan. Nearly three thousand people were killed by the four plane crashes. The world gasped in disbelief at the attacks, which live television broadcast in horrifying detail. Sympathy poured in from across the globe.
Americans were awestruck by the way New Yorkers pulled together in the face of the greatest disaster ever to hit their city. There was no panic, rioting, looting, or despair. People took care of each other, gathering in grief to honor the victims and help the survivors. From across the country and all over the world fire and police departments sent rescue units as a symbolic gesture to honor the 343 firefighters and sixty police officers killed in helping over 25,000 people escape.
Psychologically, the nation joined together in a unity that had not been seen since the end of World War II. There was no opposition to congressional votes of $20 billion in aid to the city. Over a billion dollars in voluntary contributions poured in to help the families of the victims. The national aviation and tourism industries suffered heavily from people's fear of future hijackings and the restrictive airport security measures that became necessary. The overall economy had already slipped into a downturn and 9–11 made the recession worse.
President George W. Bush, after a few hours of embarrassing confusion on September 11, addressed the nation. He told Congress on September 20, 2001, that this was war. He blamed al-Qaida, explaining that it practiced a form of extremism that perverted the peaceful teachings of Islam. It had established a base in remote Afghanistan, protected by the Taliban regime. Bush issued an ultimatum: the Taliban must immediately turn over the al-Qaida leaders to American justice, or share their fate.
Bush emphasized that Americans respected the Muslim religion but he promised to systematically destroy the terrorists—to hunt them down cave-by-cave and destroy them everywhere in the world. No government would be allowed to harbor them. "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists," he proclaimed. "From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime." In other words, the response would not be police work to arrest suspected criminals, but rather a worldwide military crusade to eradicate an implacable enemy. On September 14, 2001 Congress authorized President Bush "to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations, or persons." The nation had united. The immediate threat was in Afghanistan, and within weeks American special operations forces aided by air power assisted local forces in overthrowing the Taliban.
The longer range threat came from rogue nations that Bush later termed "the Axis of Evil"—Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. He explained that global peace could never be assured as long as those states threatened to support terrorism and had the capacity and incentive to make weapons of mass destruction. Proceeding without United Nations authorization, despite repeated efforts to gain UN support, America and its coalition partners demanded that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein resign; when he refused they invaded Iraq and ousted him in March 2003.
In terms of domestic policy the most important result of 9–11 was the passage in October 2001, by bipartisan majorities, of a law formally titled "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001" (USA PATRIOT Act). The PATRIOT Act significantly enhanced the ability of law enforcement agencies to trace terrorist cells, especially those using the phone system or the Internet; to share information among many different security agencies; and to seize the financial assets used by terrorists. Civil libertarians—citizens' associations as well as the American Library Association, among others—worried that the PATRIOT Act sacrificed individual rights in the name of security. The millions who waited in much longer lines for airport inspections did not complain, for a heightened sense of security was essential to the restoration of confidence in the safety of the transportation industry. Despite some fears that Americans would take out their frustration on Muslims in the United States, nothing of the sort happened. Law enforcement did, however, increase surveillance of foreigners from the Mideast, leading to debates about the wisdom of ethnic profiling.
The second most important domestic result was the reorganization of multiple federal agencies dealing with terrorism. Twenty-two different agencies with 180,000 employees merged into the Department of Homeland Security in the largest reorganization of the federal government in fifty years. The new department included the Secret Service; the Coast Guard; Customs, Immigration and Naturalization; and the Transportation Security Administration (which took over airport security from private firms). Not included in the new department were the FBI and CIA. They remained independent, while promising better coordination and information sharing, as well as redefinition of their primary mission as combating terrorism inside the United States and worldwide.
September 11, 2001 was a turning point for the nation. The number one reason for having a strong national government in the first place was to provide defense against attacks. In the past this had always meant some sort of threat from a major nation. Now the threat was invisible, insidious, and of uncertain dimensions.
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Inside 9–11: What Really Happened. By the writers, reporters and editors of Der Spiegel Magazine. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2002.
Mann, James. Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet. New York: Viking, 2004.
A Nation Challenged: A Visual History of 9/11 and Its Aftermath. Edited by Mitchel Levitas, et al. New York: New York Times/Callaway, 2002.
Posner, Gerald L. Why America Slept: The Failure to Prevent 9/11. New York: Random House, 2003.
Sammon, Bill. Fighting Back: The War on Terrorism from Inside the Bush White House. Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 2003.
Bush, George W." Address to a Joint Session of Congress on Terrorist Attacks." American Rhetoric Online Speech Bank. Full text and audio version available from <http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/gwbush911jointsessionspeech.htm>.
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"The 9/11 Commission Report: The Full Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States." National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, 2004. Available from <http://www.9-11commission.gov/>.
Richard Jensen and