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20 Years After Attacks, Is The 9/11 Era Over?

Thick smoke billows into the sky from the area behind the Statue of Liberty, ...

Photo by Daniel Hulshizer / Associated Press

Above: Thick smoke billows into the sky from the area behind the Statue of Liberty, lower left, where the World Trade Center towers stood, on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001. The towers collapsed after terrorists crashed two planes into them.

Sept. 11, 2001, certainly wasn’t the the first time the United States was attacked by a foreign foe.

But it might as well have been for the two generations of Americans that came of age after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.

Listen to this story by Amita Sharma

“The thing that left America so shaken and left me so shaken about 9/11 was was not just this horrendous loss of life that we all watched live on TV, but where it happened,” said UC San Diego political science professor Thad Kousser. “It happened on American soil.”

Within 18 months of America’s invincibility being shattered came a new era of tighter airport security, an unprecedented domestic surveillance program and the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq.

And, for a while, we were united.

“It led to almost unanimous support for a new American foreign policy — the Bush Doctrine that was really we're going to defend American interests wherever they are, and we're going to go it alone, if necessary, to do that,” Kousser said.

Some impacts of 9/11 attacks, just like the attacks on Fort Sumpter and Pearl Harbor, will likely be with us for centuries. Yet, as we commemorate their 20th anniversary, Kousser and others can't help but wonder if the so-called 9/11 era has already come to an end.

“There’s been so much American history written in the last five years that it almost crowds out any attempt to look back if you look at just how momentous everything that's happened has been,” he said.

A pivotal election

Kousser sees the election of Donald Trump as the beginning of the end. With his America First doctrine, Trump was the first president in the post-9/11 era to fully denounce our interventionist foreign policy and sharply reduce the military presence in Afghanistan.

The continued mass shootings, climate-driven weather catastrophes and the political scandals in the Trump White House all marked the new era.

Then, of course, came the pandemic. In fact, during last winter's surge, there were many days when COVID-19 killed more people in a single day than the nearly 3,000 who died on 9/11.

”It may be easy to look back and say, 'Really? That puny event,' but on the other hand, 9/11 wasn't just one day, it has set in place a series of things, the war in Afghanistan, our longest war, and the war in Iraq.” Kousser said.

The effects, of which remain raw for the families whose loved ones were among the 2,461 U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan and 4,441 service members who perished in Iraq.

A terrorist attack at Kabul airport killing 13 soldiers during the United States’ chaotic exit from Afghanistan last month only drove home the futility of that war and how much it damaged America’s interests, according to UC San Diego political science professor Erik Gartzke.

“It was a terrible failure,” Gartzke said. “It was Vietnam two."

He added that in foreign policy circles, the past two decades are viewed as a lost generation because of the United States’ singular focus on terrorism.

“That's given much more potent adversaries like Russia and China 20 years to develop and improve and address their deficiencies in terms of their opposition to the United States, a period during which the U.S. was not focused on them,” Gartzke said. “And I think in retrospect, increasingly we're seeing that as a mistake.”

Meanwhile, the decades-long focus on Islamic terrorism obscured the continual rise of homegrown terrorism.

“With the exception of 2001, every year has been a year in which almost all terrorist incidents involving Americans happened domestically and were caused by Americans against Americans,” Gartzke said. “Domestic terrorism is the bulk of terrorism.”

He said America hasn’t and likely won’t heal from 9/11 as much as it has just moved on.

“It's not a perfect country, but it manages to muddle through pretty well,” Gartzke said.

A new resilience?

UC Irvine psychology professor Roxanne Cohen Silver said the expected mass exoduses from cities and high-rises after 9/11 never actually happened.

“There were many people in the days and months after 9/11 who predicted widespread psychological trauma, widespread psychological consequences for individuals in New York and on the East Coast that really didn’t materialize,” Silver said. “What we did see was a return in many ways to how things were prior to 9/11.”

She said it’s too soon to tell if America will show the same resilience now because of the scale of its current turmoil.

“The day after the George Floyd murder, I had this profound sense that we had had a series of cascading collective traumas that had begun with the early days of the pandemic, the mitigation strategies, stopping people from going to school, stopping people from working, the economic consequences for the 40 million people who lost their jobs,” Silver said. “It's very difficult for us to say how we coped with COVID-19 because we’re still here.”

Kousser said taking a page from how the country reacted to 9/11 might ease the path out of its present trauma.

He said even though the terror attacks 20 years ago affected each American differently, the people came together in a way that seems impossible now.

“With the pandemic, the paradox has been we’ve all been affected in our personal lives in very similar ways, with school closures, work closures, with many more people having friends and family members affected or passing away from COVID,” Kousser said. “And yet our response has gone in 180 different directions. We continue to polarize as a country.”

Reported by Amita Sharma , Video by Matthew Bowler

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Photo of Amita Sharma

Amita Sharma
Investigative Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs an investigative reporter for KPBS, I've helped expose political scandals and dug into intractable issues like sex trafficking. I've raised tough questions about how government treats foster kids. I've spotlighted the problem of pollution in poor neighborhoods. And I've chronicled corporate mistakes and how the public sometimes ends up paying for them.

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