As a historian, many people ask me, “What do you think the worst day in human history was ?” I’m sure if I lived during the “black plague” in the 13th century or the “Mongol Invasions” lead under Ghengis Khan in the 11th century, my answer might be different. However, as a 30 year old man living in the 21st century, my answer has to be “September 11th, 2001”. Although we are only 17 years into this century, less than a year in, the worst attack on American soil in our nation’s history took place, causing unforgettable mass panic and fear. A fear that has never quite evaporated from our conscious.
Not just for Americans, but for humanity as a whole. It’s no secret that the United States is considered the world’s super-power in terms of economics and military strength. Thus, when such a nation is attacked, it brings forth world-wide consequences. The September 11th attacks resulted in thousands of innocent American citizen casualties, thousands of US military causalities, and more than a million deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan; most of who were not enemy combatants. In fact, the nation of Iraq had nothing to do with the attacks on 9/11—-Alas, that is a conversation for a different day. Economically, it resulted in Trillions of dollars being spent, causing world-wide massive inflation and debt.
16 years later, the wars in the middle east as a result of these attacks are still ongoing.
Since 9/11/2001, a complete overhaul of what it means to be “free” and “safe” has been forever altered. These attacks gave birth to Islamophobia, wars in Libya, Iraq,Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, and increased terrorism in countries outside the United States. France, UK, Germany, Sudan, Burma, Canada, all of which have had tensions with Muslims since 9/11. Another side effect of the 9/11 attacks is the attack on our personal liberties under the guise of “protection”.
Because of these attacks, the United States felt compelled to pass laws like the “Patriot Act” and the “National Defense Authorization Act of 2012”. The Patriot Act was passed under the Bush administration which allowed the government to supersede the need for a warrant to seize property or wiretap phones, so long as suspected “terrorism” was cited for the reason. The National Defense Authorization Act of 2012, passed under the Obama administration, specifically sections 1021 and 1022, allows for the indefinite detention of American Citizens without use of trial; so long as their is “suspicion” of terrorism involved; A word that is still not completely defined.
Another response to the 9/11 attacks was the creation of the Transportation Administration Administration , A.K.A- TSA. The TSA also coincided with newly created government “watchlists” and “no-fly lists“. Anyone can be secretly put onto these lists for a host of arbitrary reasons, such as posting something negative about the government on social media, without the person being formally accused of any crime in a judicial court. Many people have been put on such lists for simply sharing a similar name to a former criminal. The procedure for getting off the list is also very limited and the results are usually not successful and/or very time consuming. According to a report issued by the Department of Defense and later publicized by the ACLU in 2009 , see —(,https://www.aclu.org/news/fbi-inspector-general-reports-35-percent-error-rate-terror-watchlist) revealed that more than 35% of people put on watch-lists were done so in error or without good cause. Once put on such a list, most people remain there indefinitely with no expiration or “probationary” date. Some people as young as 7 years old have been put on the list, revoking their ability to travel via air permanently.
Soon, other countries began to follow suit. The United Kingdom responded to the 9/11 attacks with the Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act 2001 which allowed for indefinite detention of non-nationals in the UK. The Criminal Justice Act of 2003 passed in the UK parliament, also allowed for double-jeopardy pending new evidence being submitted. Something completely unheard of in most westernized judicial systems. However, the Prevention of Terrorism Act of 2005 was the most egregious law attacking British civil liberties. Under this legislation, the government was then allowed to tag, monitor, and detain anyone “suspected” of terrorism with little (if any) oversight from the courts.
In 2013, Edward Snowden, a former IT specialist with the CIA, leaked the NSA’s “spy program” to the public, that was operating under the authority of the Patriot Act. Snowden discovered that nearly all communication devices in the United States and parts of Europe were being monitored 24/7 by governing powers with the cooperation of major corporations in secrecy. Such a leak turned Snowden in a political refugee who was forced to flee to Russia, a country that previously had a war with the US backed “Mujahadeen” in the 1980s. In October of 2015, I met Ben Wizner, Snowden’s attorney, at a conference, who stated that Mr. Snowden desires to come back home to the United States, a dream that Wizner hopes will someday come true.
Since 9/11, Muslim extremists have attacked subway stations, parades, and other social events, such as the “Boston Marathon Bombings” and the recent attacks in Paris,France. These extremists often use guerrilla warfare or nontraditional methods to attack their hosts. They are not like a traditional standing army that fights in a formation with a designated uniform. As a result, the use of unmanned “spy drones” have been deployed in war. These drones can hover for days, monitoring human movement, equipped with weaponry. This technology is now being used by domestic law enforcement against civilians.
To this day, many speculate on ‘why” the attacks on 9/11 happened. Some say that the middle eastern culture is simply barbaric or is “jealous” of our liberal way of life. Others, such as former FBI director, Michael Scheurer, and former Texas Congressman Ron Paul, cite foreign policy moves in the past, like the sanctions placed on Iraq during the Clinton era that resulted in over 500,000 starving to death, for being potential causes of the 9/11 attacks. Some conspiracy theorists claim it was an “inside job” perpetrated by profiteers. Regardless of “why” it happened, a response to these attacks were justified. Whether or not the United States responded correctly is an on-going debate. Personally, I think that the Bush administration and the Obama administration did some “good things” and some “bad things”, just as any other president would do. It’s a “gray” area that continues today. The question still lingers…
“How do we respect individual liberty while still keeping us safe?”
Just as during WWII and the Cold-War era, there is a witch-hunt happening. In the cold-war era, anyone who was negative or critical of government was automatically labeled a “communist” or “Nazi” and could be imprisoned under the Smith Act of 1940 for having certain political affiliations . I fear that the same thing is happening today. Yes, there are terrorists in the world. Yes, there is a threat from Muslim extremism and domestic extremists. However, I feel that it is far too easy, legislatively, to label some person/protestor, common criminal or an activity as “terroristic”, so that the burdens of judicial oversight can be ignored, thus making some bureaucrat’s job easier to go after people they deem, “unpatriotic” or ideologically “unfavorable” to mainstream politics. Very reminiscent of the 1950’s which spawned the COINTEL program lead under J. Edgar Hoover.
These current parameters are certainly a slippery-slope that has effected many innocent people arbitrarily placed on surveillance, made to be informants against their will, and so forth. People live in constant fear of being “labeled”, thus, free speech and dissent become muffled.
“Have a negative view of your government? You better delete that last comment on Facebook, or else you may get a knock on your door!” – A quote you hear all too often these days.
However, on the other hand, the United States government cannot simply “do nothing” when such attacks happen like the ones that occurred on 9/11. A government’s natural reaction is to prevent such attacks from re-occurring and to reassure the public. The problem is, many disagree on how to achieve that goal. Yet, the important thing is, we all agree that we never want to see something like this happen again. The question remains, is the so called “War on Terror” a winnable war? Can it be won? Have they already defeated us by making us change our values so much? I certainly believe that Americans and the rest of the western world certainly suffers from a form of PTSD after witnessing the 9/11 attacks. Fear and anxiety certainly envelop many of us when we fly or travel since those attacks occurred.
The attacks on the World Trade Center not only sent shockwaves through the hearts of Americans, but it also caused a catastrophic change in our values as a nation. As these values changed, so did the rest of the world’s values. As the world’s super-power, the entire globe was watching, listening, taking notes, and following suit.
16 years later. The war continues. Many sons and daughters are fighting in the same wars that their mothers and fathers served in. Many children of deceased US soldiers carry resentment towards Muslims. Children of deceased middle eastern civilians carry resentment towards Americans. The cycle of hate and fear continue while those everyday people who have nothing to do with these wars get caught in a “legislative drive-by” AKA “Knee-jerk reaction laws”.
September 11th, 2001 permanently changed the way we travel, communicate, and do business. The years leading up to 9/11, the internet was largely an unregulated free-market enterprise rife with expression. Our foreign policy entanglements were limited to brief skirmishes, green cards were relatively easy to obtain and the world was a lot more “self governing”. Unfortunately, I do not see these trends reversing anytime soon. At the very least, we may be able to “weaken” some of these invasive measures, such as what happened with the “Patriot Act”. (later renamed the Freedom Act, which limited some of the powers of the Patriot Act).
If you are under the age of 40, and live in any westernized nation, it is very plausible and arguable to say that the September 11th attack was the worst day in your lifetime, perhaps not on a personal scale (factoring in death of relatives, health issues ect..), but on a public scale for humanity,western culture,values, and those who hold Libertarian leaning values.
Even if you disagree with my statement of 9/11 being the worst day in the 21st century, none can argue that it didn’t permanently change the geo-political landscape of this world. If you can recognize that fact, then you will see the rationale behind such a bold statement.
Where do we go from here? How do we heal a wound that still bleeds 16 years later in a society that continues to divide? Forget Islamaphobia, attacks on civil liberties or the possibility of ISIS invading the United States. What scares me the most is that we are forgetting the values that bind us. Values that are explicitly and universally stated in the United States Constitution, the International Declaration of Human Rights, and even in most major religions like Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, and even Islam.
Thou shalt not kill…
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you….
Treat foreign aliens as if they were your family….
Do not murder…
Kindness begets kindness…
use resources sparingly…
let a non-believer relish in his own ways so long as he does no personal harm to you…
These are universal principles found everywhere in the world. Principles that have been overshadowed by fear, angst, anxiety, and our need to “right” about everything.
It is my dream that September 11th, 2001, can transform itself from being the worst day in the 21st century, to becoming a catalyst for conversation that enlightens all of us, a sort of renaissance/enlightenment for mankind. If you are reading this article, perhaps we are one step closer to achieving that dream.
Randell D Stroud