Where were you when you learned about the 9/11 attacks?
I was settling into a college classroom in sunny Madison, Wisconsin for a mathematics lesson that fateful September morning. A commotion among students gathered around several TVs located in a commons area grabbed my attention and I learned about an airplane that had crashed into a New York City skyscraper. Almost every channel on the TVs cut away to the billows of smoke that poured out of one of the Twin Towers. Then another plane struck! We stared at the screens in amazement before being informed about another incident at the Pentagon building near Washington, DC. Broadcasters later told us of yet another crash in a field in rural Pennsylvania. At the time, we did not know what was behind the tragic events, but it clearly involved several commercial airplanes. Shortly thereafter, an announcement was made over the school’s public address system with instructions for everyone to go home as classes were canceled for the remainder of the day on account of the breaking news. I set out for my small apartment around mid-morning on 9/11 uncertain if there were more threats in the skies above and unsure who was responsible for what appeared to be coordinated attacks across several US states.
How did those attacks change the world and your life as a US citizen?
As a young American, the 9/11 attacks quickly expanded my worldview to include far-flung places and actors of which I was previously unaware, and they also acclimated me to the modern security state in the US that is nowadays taken for granted. At the time, there was an atmosphere of anxiety and fear across the US over the possibility of terror strikes in unknown places at unknown times. Like my fellow citizens, I learned new names and terms such as Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, Taliban, and more. Islam, and specifically the militant fundamentalist strain, became a topic of discussion among an angry and bewildered US public in the aftermath of the attacks. Pervasive paranoia persisted for months and years after the attacks because psychopaths preyed on public fear and sent deadly anthrax through the postal service, called in fake bomb threats, not to mention the 23 days of fear with the DC sniper attacks and other isolated incidents of domestic terrorism. Personally, I helped answer my own endless questions about these seemingly mysterious forces which had seized the collective attention of the US through the study of Arabic language, Islamic history, cultures of the Middle East and American foreign policy in the 20th century. Today, I work in Washington, DC on issues that involve all of those subjects.
On the world stage, the most obvious and lasting impact of the 9/11 attacks is the global security regime in place for international travel and transport of goods. Official databases hold all of our personal information and determine who is eligible to travel, while airplanes, ships and vehicles are scanned to foil the next terrorist attack. 9/11 also directly led to US Military operations that altered the dynamics of the Middle East and South Asia which persist until now. For example, the removal of Saddam Hussein in Iraq has strengthened Iran and its Shiite proxies across the region and led to the formation of the Islamic State, which remains active.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban are back in charge despite many billions spent and thousands of lives lost over twenty years. Significant sums of money sent to Kabul that were siphoned off through corruption and ineptitude, by defense contractors and duplicitous “allied” states would surely have been better spent elsewhere in the US or worldwide. Finally, American involvement in the Middle East since the 9/11 attacks seems to have had the overall effect of worsening international opinions about the US. Global sympathy for America following the attacks melted away with long-term military occupations that inevitably come to be despised in all corners of the world. The chaotic end of one of those occupations in August 2021 may portend changes for the future international order as allies and adversaries reassess their relations with the US.
* Scott Muir, écorrespondant : correspondant de l’express à Washington, D.C.