Twenty years after the 9/11 terror attacks, the World Trade Center has been rebuilt. Osama bin Laden has been killed. The U.S. has pulled out of Afghanistan, ending America’s longest war while leaving the country in control of the Taliban. Twenty years later, we still live with the effects, events and phenomena that have rippled out from that day. The Missourian asked four experts — two historians and two journalists — to identify such effects that still make an impact, two decades later.
The ubiquitous displays of nationalist symbols
“Perhaps the one most closely associated with 9/11 are US flag lapel pins (note the gendered dimension, as these are primarily worn on men’s suits). This steroidal display of nationalism made that of the Cold War-era look like child’s play. The irony, of course, was that all this flag waving masked the deepening fault lines within American life.”
— Jay Sexton
Consumption and tax cuts
“As American elites opted to pour trillions of dollars into foreign adventures and nation-building projects after 9/11 (i.e. Afghanistan and Iraq), they also called upon Americans to do their patriotic duty of… shopping and voting for politicians who irresponsibly doled out tax cuts (W. Bush called upon Americans to go shopping shortly after 9/11; the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts did not pay for themselves, as promised at the time).
“Note the social derangement: the costs of post-9/11 foreign policy were paid by those Americans at the bottom of the social ladder, not least the service people (and their families) of America’s volunteer military forces; meanwhile, those at the top found this era one of immense profit. 9/11 didn’t cause social stratification in the United States, but it accelerated that trend and revealed it for all to see.”
— Jay Sexton
Policing after 9/11
“9/11 led to a dramatic expansion in the policing and surveillance powers of the U.S. government. Some of those changes were obvious, like airports suddenly bristling with Transportation Security Administration agents, full-body scanners and long lines. Other changes were less visible but even more important. The USA Patriot Act granted new authority to law enforcement agencies, and the National Security Agency began to track millions of emails and phone calls.
“These new powers sometimes expanded beyond the original mission of counterterrorism, as police invoked post-9/11 laws to bolster their authority in dealing with criminal suspects who had nothing to do with al-Qaeda. Police departments adopted body armor, military vehicles and other surplus equipment from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, blurring the line between warfare abroad and law enforcement at home.”
— Victor McFarland
The invisibility of the international 9/11
“The tragic day is presented in our memorial rituals here in the U.S. as an American tragedy. But in truth this was an international tragedy. I believe people from 80 or so countries died that day. The World Trade Center is named ‘world’ for a reason, as it was a hub of global capitalism.
“Particularly impacted were expatriate Britons — no surprise there were many Brits working in the WTC. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were also transnational in nature, with NATO supporting the venture in Afghanistan and the Bush-Blair partnership orchestrating the joint Anglo-American intervention in Iraq, much to the chagrin of the U.N. Security Council and some of our allies, not least the French. 9/11 revealed not only the vulnerability of U.S. national security, but also the fragility of our transatlantic Cold War alliance system, which has struggled to transition to the new conditions of the 21st century.”
— Jay Sexton
The worship of first responders
“We saw in the days that followed 9/11 an outpouring of gratitude to the police and fire personnel who responded to the attacks — particularly in New York City. This seemed like a natural and normal offshoot of the grief everyone was feeling and the need to find something positive in the tragedy.
“What was unexpected and has had a long-term impact to this day is that the feelings in the wake of the attacks did not diminish as one would expect but seem to have grown. This has led to the inability to have substantive public policy discussions about the role of policing in society and has resulted in the standoff between BLM and other social justice advocates and a large portion of the population with a ‘Back the Blue’ mentality that holds the police can never do anything wrong because of the role its members play in society.”
— Stacey Woelfel
The worship of the military
“Even in World War II and the conflicts that followed, there was never a level of military hero worship as seen post-9/11. This has manifested itself in small and somewhat trivial ways such as military members getting to board airplanes before other passengers. But it has also crossed into the public policy realm as politicians have attached what might be unpopular policy goals to the military and its defense. That has often dumbed down debate on the issues with the public blindly supporting what it thinks is good for the military, even though it often is not.”
— Stacey Woelfel
The Post-9/11 Wars
“Almost 3,000 people died on 9/11, but those deaths were only the beginning of the human costs of the attacks. 9/11 led the United States to invade Afghanistan and Iraq, while sending troops to dozens of other countries as part of the ‘Global War on Terror.’ About 7,000 U.S. military personnel have lost their lives in those conflicts, along with about 7,500 U.S. contractors. Many thousands more have been wounded. However, those casualties have mostly been borne by the small share of the American population who serve in the all-volunteer military. Unlike previous wars like WWI and WWII, the ‘War on Terror’ has never involved conscription and mass mobilization.
“People in Afghanistan and Iraq saw their lives changed in a far more radical way. 9/11 happened in the United States, but its most terrible long-term consequences have fallen on people outside America’s borders. According to the Costs of War Project at Brown University, more than 69,000 Afghan military and police and 46,000 civilians have been killed since the U.S. invasion in 2001. In Iraq, over 45,000 security personnel and roughly 200,000 civilians have lost their lives. Even as the Taliban and the Iraqi government have consolidated their control over the two countries, sporadic fighting and terrorist attacks have continued. The economic damage and ruined infrastructure caused by the wars will also take a heavy toll on Afghanistan and Iraq for many years to come.”
— Victor McFarland
Media’s addiction to catastrophe
“At first, 9/11 was good for journalism: In the immediate aftermath of the terrorists’ attacks, newsrooms rose to the occasion and produced great work, reminding all of us how much we need our town criers at a time of trouble.
“Longer term, however, 9/11 created a strong temptation to exploit that need by pandering to fear and anxieties. Let’s face it, panic and mass hysteria are good for broadcast ratings and newspaper street sales. Too many of us have become pushers of catastrophe, trying to addict our viewers, listeners and readers to the potent drug that is crisis in the hopes it will keep them coming back to us.”
— Kathy Kiely
Kathy Kiely is the Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies at the Missouri School of Journalism. Victor McFarland is an associate professor in the MU Department of History. Jay Sexton is the Rich and Nancy Kinder Chair of Constitutional Democracy and Professor of History. Stacy Woelfel is the director of the Jonathan B. Murray Center for Documentary Journalism. Their words have been edited for length.