Each generation has a defining moment, one that prompts individuals to ask, “Where were you when . . .?” Usually such moments are national; rarely does a single event touch lives across the world. Sept. 11 was one of those international tragedies. A year ago today, the world watched transfixed as hijacked airliners crashed into targets in the United States (one, thanks to the heroism of its crew and passengers who overcame the terrorists, plunged to earth in a Pennsylvania field). The crashes killed more than 3,000 people, heralding the arrival of a grim, new era. The events of Sept. 11 have had a profound effect on governments and individuals worldwide. Yet it is unclear whether we have truly absorbed the lessons of that day.
The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks ushered in a new era of insecurity in the U.S. As only the third foreign attack on U.S. soil during the country’s history, they shattered the myth of American invulnerability. For two centuries, the U.S. had been confident that two oceans insulated it from the turmoil and tumult of other parts of the world. Sept. 11 ended that false sense of security.
In response, the U.S. took military action against the government in Afghanistan, a country that most Americans could not find on a map and whose grievances they could not understand. President George W. Bush spoke openly of the presence of evil in the world and of his country’s mission to terminate the threat posed to peace and security. For him, the choice was simple: Nations are either “with us or against us.” After defeating the Taliban and taking on “the second front” in Southeast Asia, the war drums are beating louder as the U.S. administration lays the groundwork for an assault on Iraq, another regime that speaks the language of the Sept. 11 terrorists.
The economic effects of Sept. 11 are still rippling through the global economy. It is estimated that the damage to New York City alone will total $40 billion. The military campaign in Afghanistan adds $80 billion to the bill. Additional indirect costs, such as the insurance premiums businesses must now pay and the security measures, add billions more to the tally.
The economic impact is being felt worldwide. Every nation has been affected by the rising price of oil, while stock markets around the world have shed trillions of dollars in value in the last year. There are many reasons for those losses that have nothing to do with Sept. 11. — accounting scandals and the recognition that there was a “bubble” in the U.S. stock market. Still, the lingering fear in the aftermath of the attacks that there will be more is an important contributing factor.
The greatest effect is psychological. Americans now feel vulnerable. Incredibly, no nation or hostile government did this. Rather, 19 men, armed with box cutters, have changed irrevocably the way Americans view the world. The investigation into the attacks has revealed the shifting balance of power between governments and individuals as well as the new dangers that have been created by globalization.
Thinking about national security will never be the same. Terrorists have long been a concern, but they have assumed greater significance in the last year. Despite Mr. Bush’s “black and white” formulation, it has become clear that threats emerge from unexpected places — who would have thought that a ragtag bunch living in the caves of a Third World country could destroy two international landmarks half a world away? — and that cause and effect have long and twisted linkages. There are no simple solutions to the most important questions.
Sept. 11 has also forced Americans to face the gap between their image of themselves and the way they are viewed internationally. On Sept. 12, newspapers around the world could proclaim that “we are all Americans,” but soon thereafter the anger and rage that animates many became evident. Americans have a deeply felt belief in their own good intentions and the righteousness of their cause. And yet, over the past year, there has been a growing recognition of the incompatibility of U.S. objectives and interests with those of other nations, triggering talk of a “clash of civilizations.” The U.S. has come face to face with the deeply seated distrust — and yes, even hatred — created by its policies and its success. The U.S. people and their government must not shy away from an understanding of that unpleasant reality and work to change it.
At the same time, for all the changes created by Sept. 11, there are many continuities. The world on Sept. 12 looked a lot like it did on Sept. 10. There may be “new security threats,” but old ones remain. There is the ever-present danger of a conflict on the Korean Peninsula, in the Taiwan Strait or in Kashmir. One-third of the world’s population lives on less than $2 a day and hunger is more widespread than anger. Sept. 11 should have taught us that we ignore those continuities at our peril.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.