9/11 was a pivotal day that changed America 

click to enlarge Airport pat-downs, barricades outside government offices, identification checks at private buildings, searches at sports stadiums, armed security officers at public events, long motorcades with Secret Service sport utility vehicles and police outriders — all these are the legacy of 9/11. (AP file photo) - AIRPORT PAT-DOWNS, BARRICADES OUTSIDE GOVERNMENT OFFICES, IDENTIFICATION CHECKS AT PRIVATE BUILDINGS, SEARCHES AT SPORTS STADIUMS, ARMED SECURITY OFFICERS AT PUBLIC EVENTS, LONG MOTORCADES WITH SECRET SERVICE SPORT UTILITY VEHICLES AND POLICE
  • Airport pat-downs, barricades outside government offices, identification checks at private buildings, searches at sports stadiums, armed security officers at public events, long motorcades with Secret Service sport utility vehicles and police
  • Airport pat-downs, barricades outside government offices, identification checks at private buildings, searches at sports stadiums, armed security officers at public events, long motorcades with Secret Service sport utility vehicles and police outriders — all these are the legacy of 9/11. (AP file photo)

Dec. 7, 1941. Nov. 22, 1963. Sept. 11, 2001. All of us old enough to remember know exactly where we were and what we were doing when we first heard the awful news. We remember the stunning feeling that suddenly everything had changed, that nothing would be the same. We remember feeling that unknown horrors lay ahead.

Scroll down to see or download a graphic mapping out milestones in national security and the war on terrorism since Sept. 11, 2001.

Ten years after Pearl Harbor, the United States was mired in a stalemated war in Korea. But the nation had won a great victory in World War II, embarked on a generation of postwar prosperity, and confronted the Soviet Union in a Cold War that would take four decades to win.

Ten years after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the United States went through a wrenching debate on the war in Vietnam and had a president mired in the scandal known as Watergate. But the nation had also passed landmark civil rights legislation, embarked on a war against poverty and landed the first men on the moon.

Ten years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the changes are less dramatic and less resolved, but they touch Americans every day. Airport pat-downs, barricades outside government offices, identification checks at private buildings, searches at sports stadiums, armed security officers at public events, long motorcades with Secret Service sport utility vehicles and police outriders — all these are the legacy of 9/11.

On Sept. 10, 2001, America was on a decadelong holiday from history. We were, as Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said, “the indispensable nation,” seemingly without any serious enemies. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the demise of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991 signaled with more clarity than is usual in history the end of the Cold War. We had mostly harmonious relations with Russia and our economy was increasingly intertwined with China’s.

It was a decade with fewer military conflicts and deaths than any for more than a century. And where America did intervene militarily, in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, it did so without committing appreciable numbers of ground troops or incurring significant numbers of casualties.

Even more important, as Francis Fukuyama argued in his 1992 book “The End of History,” there seemed to be no system of governance competitive with liberal democracies and market capitalism. Nazism was long gone, Marxism was dead, and democracy was making vast gains in large parts of the world.

Sept. 11 ended this holiday from history. It became clear even before the twin towers fell that we had enemies determined to inflict enormous maximum damage on our society. Al-Qaida  and other Islamist extremists had the means to do so because of the proliferation of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons — weapons of mass destruction — which were being developed by regimes such as Iran and North Korea.

The course of national policy and the sense Americans have of their place in the world, both transformed in response to Sept. 11, have remained largely in place, despite bitter partisan debate and sharp electoral swerves — toward Democrats in 2006 and 2008, toward Republicans in 2010. Amid all the alarms and diversions, there has been a surprising degree of continuity in public opinion and public policy.

In the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, polls showed that most Americans believed that another terrorist attack was very or somewhat likely. They have continued to believe that over most of the past decade, and that fear has, if anything, strengthened during the past two years.

Americans, as during the four decades of the Cold War, have proved able to persevere in their daily lives and work without undue psychological distress from a threat that seems likely to continue indefinitely. This is not unprecedented: When John Kennedy said we were facing “a long twilight struggle,” he was speaking nearer to the beginning than the end of the Cold War.  While recognizing that luck has been a factor, Americans give government and its leaders credit for protecting the nation. George W. Bush, even when his overall job approval slumped, was seen as doing a good job of reducing the threat from terrorism. Barack Obama, even as his job approval has sunk, continues to receive high marks for this as well.

Which is not to say that the approaches of the two administrations have been identical, or that there have not been sharp disagreements between the two political parties and harsh attacks on each president. On Sept. 10 the nation was closely divided between Republicans and Democrats, as evidenced by the excruciatingly close presidential election of 2000. Democrats, after a party switch, held a 51-49 majority in the Senate; in the House Republicans had the smallest majority of any party in nearly 50 years.

A spirit of national unity, symbolized by lawmakers singing “God Bless America” on the steps of the Capitol on Sept. 11 and George W. Bush’s rousing speech to Congress, lifted the country’s spirits in the immediate wake of the attacks. By a near-unanimous vote, Congress authorized military action in Afghanistan.

But the bipartisan spirit dissipated within the next year. Republicans attacked Democrats for insisting on provisions favoring unionization of employees in the new Department of Homeland Security. There were even sharper differences over the resolution authorizing military action against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq.

Democrats resented George W. Bush’s insistence of a vote in Oct. 2002, weeks before the congressional election. The resolution was supported by virtually all Republicans and by most Senate Democrats — including Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and John Edwards — but opposed by a majority of House Democrats led by future Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

In many ways the critics echoed the cries of opponents of the Vietnam War three decades before. The charge that “Bush lied and people died” resembled the charges that Lyndon Johnson misled Congress into passing the Tonkin Gulf resolution of 1964. The clamor over “warrantless wiretapping” resembled criticism of Nixon administration surveillance programs — never mind that the practice in question was limited to surveillance of communications between suspected al- Qaida operatives abroad and persons in the United States. The charge that we had gone into Iraq unilaterally, when actually we were accompanied by forces from more than 30 nations, was a more salient critique of our course in Vietnam, where we had few allies.

This harsh criticism continued as casualties in Iraq mounted and as the American military strategy was failing. Bush waited until after the Republicans’ defeat in the 2006 off-year elections to change commanders and adopt the surge strategy that, despite Democrats’ attacks and Republicans’ queasiness, turned the tide in Iraq unmistakably toward success. 

The political debate led many to expect a sharp change in policy when President Barack Obama took office in January 2009. Instead, the new administration largely followed the course of its predecessor. There was no sudden withdrawal of troops from Iraq; instead the surge troops remained in place until violence had fallen sharply and the Iraqis were capable of taking over.

In Afghanistan, Obama, after some hesitation, decided in December 2009 to increase troop levels and to prosecute the conflict more aggressively. He has called for troop withdrawals beginning in Sept. 2012 but also for a continuing American presence until 2014. The Obama administration has also increased the use of drone aircraft to target specific individuals. And in May 2011 Navy SEALs, at the president’s direction, attacked and killed Osama bin Laden in his compound located suspiciously near Pakistan’s military academy.

Nor were there as many changes in the treatment of captured terrorists as political rhetoric led many to expect. Waterboarding, applied to only three captured terrorists, was abandoned by 2004. The Guantanamo detention camp, despite Obama’s campaign promises, has remained open. Renditions — the handing over of captives to other nations’ interrogators — have continued.

Obama’s decision to retain Robert Gates as defense secretary was an early indicator of this general though not total continuity in policy. In the memoir he wrote in the 1990s after his retirement as CIA director, Gates drew on his service in administrations of both parties to liken the United States government to a giant ship that can only with great effort change course.

The Sept. 11 attacks prompted such a change in course, in a direction that seems in retrospect inevitable. It is inconceivable that any president would not have sent troops into Afghanistan after it became apparent that it was the refuge of the planners of the Sept. 11 attacks. It is exceedingly unlikely that any president would not take action to prevent al-Qaida and other Islamist terrorist groups from finding refuge elsewhere.

There are many who doubt that we are safer now than we were before Sept. 11, and there are reasons for disquiet. But we were never as safe as we thought on Sept. 10, and any assessment of our policies must consider the counterfactual case in which we took no action.

We do know that bin Laden is dead and have reason to believe that al-Qaida is gravely weakened.  We have at least some reason to hope that Afghanistan will not be a haven for terrorists again, and that our government is taking action to see that other nations like Yemen will not be either. We have reason to believe as well that the form of extremist Islam exemplified by bin Laden has not swept the Muslim world.

But it is not a threat we can safely ignore. As we learned on Dec. 7, 1941, and on Nov. 22, 1963, America and Americans can never be entirely safe from the violent acts of evil regimes and individuals. Sept. 11, 2001, ended our holiday from history and looking ahead it does not seem likely to appear on our calendars for many years to come.

Impacts at home, across globe


Almost immediately following the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. emphasized the argument that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was developing “weapons of mass destruction” and thus presented an imminent threat to the world. On March 20, 2003, the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq begins. On Aug. 19, 2010, the last American combat troops leave Iraq. 50,000 American soldiers remain to advise Iraqis.


The U.S. and its NATO allies immediately went to war in Afghanistan following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, beginning airstrikes after the Taliban refused to hand over Osama bin Laden. In June, when President Barack Obama laid out his plans to begin reducing the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, he sought to assure a weary American public that the country’s longest war was drawing to an end.


The Guantanamo military prison camps, established in 2002 at a U.S. naval base in Cuba to hold detainees from the war in Afghanistan and later Iraq, have drawn the ire of many human rights organizations which allege that the prisoners are being mistreated or tortured. President Barack Obama has been unable to keep his bold promise to close the prison camp for suspected terrorists.


President George W. Bush established the Office of Homeland Security to coordinate “homeland security” efforts in 2001, and it was then consolidated into the Department of Homeland Security in 2002. Later this year, the department’s inner workings will be featured on the AMC reality television program ‘Inside the DHS.’


Lawmakers — still reeling from the Sept. 11 attacks — raced to pass the Patriot Act on Oct. 26, 2001, which gave the FBI and other law enforcement agencies unprecedented power to search public records without a court order. Even though it has generated years of opposition since its enactment, President Barack Obama in May signed a four-year extension of three key provisions in the Patriot Act.


Aviation security changed dramatically after the September attacks. After 9/11, the government created the Transportation Security Administration, which was the largest single federal startup since World War II. A decade and tens of billions of tax dollars later, experts say airport security has improved dramatically even as the flying public grumbled about the growing layers of scrutiny confronting them.

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