September 11, 2001, was described in the 9/11 Commission Report as
[t]emperate and nearly cloudless in the eastern United States. Millions of men and women readied themselves for work. Some made their way to the Twin Towers, the signature structures of the World Trade Center complex in New York City. Others went to Arlington, Virginia, to the Pentagon. Across the Potomac River, the United States Congress was back in session. At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, people began to line up for a White House tour. In Sarasota, Florida, President George W. Bush went for an early morning run.
For those heading to an airport, weather conditions could not have been better for a safe and pleasant journey. Among the travelers were Mohamed Atta and Abdul Aziz al Omari. . . .
By noon, 10,000 American workers, airline passengers, and first-responder firemen and police who tried to save them had been killed or maimed in synchronized attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon by commercial planes hijacked by zealots of a radical Islamic sect known as al-Qaeda, which most Americans had never heard of. On that day, U.S. citizens lost confidence in the inevitability of a brighter future and began a search for moorings in a frighteningly new and menacing world.
The unwelcome sense of physical vulnerability that settled on all of us from that day on is still with us ten years later. The color-coded risk index for terrorist attacks; the escalation of police and security guards in airports, train stations, and ballparks; the incessant warnings we hear on all sides to report all “suspicious” activity of fellow travelers, including “inappropriate dress,” ambiguous comments, or “furtive” movements (“Watch those who are watching you”) keep us alert and perennially anxious; we are cautioned that the next attack could be on a train or subway, or in a midsize city shopping mall. There have been just enough lone terrorists apprehended by alert airline passengers, or bomb threats thwarted by good intelligence work, along with evacuations of public places on the basis of careless actions by nonterrorists, to keep citizens compliant with the new rules of the road; for the most part, travelers accept the pat-downs, X-rays, metal detectors, even the “no-fly” lists that have made travel in the United States and overseas less an adventure and more a source of apprehension. People don’t watch each others’ baggage anymore, but they do scrutinize each other for telling signs of strange behavior, however defined.
9/11 is still used as a referral point for politics, considered in city planning, and the topic of paperback novels. It changed the physical world as well; the skyline of New York, with its gaping hole where the Twin Towers stood, will never be the same, and monuments and memorials dot city squares and parks throughout the land. It seems almost everyone had a connection with someone who died or miraculously survived that day; the random picks of who lived and who died haunt us: What if she had not been late for work or stayed home? Why was he in that neighborhood at all that morning? Why did he change his plane reservations at the last minute? Some Americans turned to traditional religions for solace, but there was also a “dangerous uptick” in the popularity of conspiracy theories surrounding 9/11, including one that blamed our own government. According to one writer, “[t]he terrorist threat . . . replaced the Red Menace.” N.Y. Times review of Jonathan Kay’s book Among the Truthers.
The scars of 9/11 dominated U.S. relations with the rest of the world and with our own leaders throughout the decade. In the feverish aftermath, patriotism flourished (“God Bless America” replaced “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” in seventh-inning breaks, and a candidate not wearing an American flag pin on her lapel became a political issue).We supported our president in going to war against the Taliban government in Afghanistan for harboring the al-Qaeda terrorists, who spearheaded the attacks on our homeland. With less enthusiasm, we followed our leaders into a war against Iraq largely on the premise, later found to be without any support, that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that might be used against its neighbors, and perhaps by terrorists against us as well. We reelected George W. Bush in 2004, persuaded that his administration had prevented follow-up attacks to 9/11.
Over protests of civil libertarians, Congress legislated increased powers by law enforcement and intelligence agencies to collect vast amounts of information about our private lives through rafts of newly required security clearances, electronic taps, and nonjudicial warrants. It was later discovered that the government was also amassing mountains of data from phone calls and e-mails outside of legislative limits. In the days right after 9/11, there were roundups of Middle Eastern residents, many of whom were deported or held in detention without charge; fortunately, a backlash of media and civic society criticism made that a one-time episode. American tolerance for diversity, born of two centuries of immigration and civil war, was in the main able to withstand the onset of any widespread discrimination against loyal Muslim Americans, though tensions surfaced periodically. Throughout the decade, transparency in government and the rights of injured persons lost out to the asserted demands for official secrecy in all national security matters.
But just beyond the U.S. shoreline lay the greatest challenge to moral leadership in the world: Guantanamo, where “enemy combatants” seized on and off the battlefield were shackled, hooded, drugged, and transported to a naval base leased from Cuba, and languished there in isolated cells without access to legal process or traditional prisoner-of-war rights, until the Supreme Court intervened to require some kind of hearing to sort out the innocent captures from the al-Qaeda soldiers. Disturbing stories and photos about humiliating and abusive “enhanced interrogation” practices by American military and intelligence officers inflicted upon the detainees in Guantanamo and in other secret prisons run abroad by the Central Intelligence Agency began to emerge. “Americans do not torture,” we were assured at first, but, in truth, we did, and a steady stream of revelations on waterboarding, sleep and food deprivations, and sexual indignities made many Americans wince. Our allies abroad upbraided us for hypocrisy by engaging in practices condemned by international law and by conventions we had signed. In the latter part of the decade, our government forswore torture and several other forms of inhumane treatment, but there was little doubt we had lost not only our image in international circles as the friendly giant, but a piece of our national innocence as well. Whether the use of torture or cruel and inhumane treatment could ever be justified continued to be a matter of public debate at the end of the decade.
Reciprocally, 9/11 introduced a significant note of caution in our own attitudes toward old and new allies. The United States might still be “exceptional,” but the rising fortunes of China, India, and Brazil suggest this might not be our century after all. Our government’s attempt to label our foreign policy as supportive of a “new freedom” throughout the world has been received with cynicism in many parts of it. Yet, paradoxically, we continue to respond to a horrendous series of natural disasters—earthquakes, tsunamis, and nuclear meltdowns—across the globe with characteristic generosity, financial and in the flesh. The Arab spring of 2011 has seen President Barack Obama assuring popular uprisings against tyrannical leaders that we fully back democratic “change” and “self-determination,” but where, when, in what circumstances, and with what kind of resources remain to be seen.
The sense of vulnerability 9/11 has brought to Americans’ physical safety has spread to a growing loss of trust in political and financial leaders and beyond. The intelligence debacle on WMD in Iraq, and the economic recession into which the country plunged toward the end of the decade, made Americans uncommonly suspicious of the powerful and the elite in politics, on Wall Street, and even in education and medicine. Americans ricocheted back and forth between the two major parties, voting for change in 2006; and in 2008, Barack Obama was elected the first African-American president of the United States on a “Yes, we can,” mostly liberal platform. But within two years, we have presented him a more conservative Congress that has made his original platform virtually impossible to achieve. Even his signal victory on national health care is a source of divided opinion among Americans. A new conservative Tea Party has sprung up, resolving to return to the basic values of our forefathers—less government, especially at the national level; fewer taxes; repeal of the post–Civil War Amendments, which were the constitutional bedrock of settled civil rights and antidiscrimination policies. A parade of personal scandals in our national legislature and our statehouses, along with a sorry record of financial misdeeds and greed in big business, has contributed to our doubts about who we can trust and what we can believe. From Madoff to mammograms, auto recalls to drug removals, Americans can no longer be certain about the durability of long-held beliefs and old ways.
Partisanship in Congress has escalated to the point where several veteran members said they could tolerate it no longer and have stepped down. There seems virtually no middle ground on which old-style moderate Republicans or Democrats can work together. The Supreme Court also has moved rightward with the ascent of two conservative Republican-appointed males, and despite the addition of two liberal Democratic-appointed women, 5–4 decisions have become standard in major cases, and controversial interpretations of the First and Second Amendments have resurrected long-dormant rights of individuals to possess guns and have paved the way for a dramatic enlargement of the role of big money in electoral campaigns.
In the meantime, everyday Americans have soldiered ahead through the decade consumed by concerns about jobs, mortgages, and the future of their children. Women continue making moderate gains in their struggles for real-time equality in private and public life. Hillary Clinton ran a vigorous and close campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, and Sarah Palin captured the vice presidential spot on the Republican ticket. Gays made more spectacular progress with majority popular acceptance of same-sex marriages. “The rich got richer and the poor got poorer”; the income of those in the top 1 percent of incomes rose by 30 percent between 2002 and 2008, while that of those in the bottom 90 percent dropped 4 percent. Americans are unsure about the value of a college degree, even if they can afford one. Marriages are lasting longer—there have been fewer divorces than in the previous decade—but married couples head fewer than half of all households. The U.S. population is growing older and more expensive to maintain; calls resound for greater contributions on their part to Medicare and Social Security and some for more of a “rational” allocation of high-cost and low-result medical therapies to their age group.
We have resolutely embraced the new wave of information and communications technology, beginning with cell phones and e-mails, that 9/11 victims trapped in flaming towers or hijacked planes used to make desperate calls for help and to say last goodbyes. Within a few years of 9/11, most people walking down a street or waiting in a public place had a cell phone glued to one ear. Texting, twittering, and tweeting have replaced letter writing, home phones, and face-to-face meetings. And, ironically, these new technologies raise issues of cyber safety; as long as our lives are chronicled on computers and on Facebook, we are vulnerable to hackers and unscrupulous users, commercial and private, legal and illegal. Is rapid contact more important than genuine interaction?
At the very end of the decade, a bold U.S. foray into Pakistan resulted in the killing of Osama bin Laden, the author of 9/11, leaving Americans with a sense of retribution, in the shadow of our 9/11 past, determined to learn from but not succumb to its transformative impact on all our lives.