The lasting impact of Sept. 11, 2001

By Joan Hennessy
The Sept. 11, 2001 attacks triggered change.
The Sept. 11, 2001 attacks triggered change.
Stock image.
It is almost impossible to believe that 15 years have come and gone since one of the darkest days in the life of our nation: Sept. 11, 2001.

    Posing as passengers, 19 terrorists from al-Qaida hijacked four commercial planes after takeoff. Two airliners crashed into the upper floors of the Twin Towers -- the World Trade Center in New York City. A third plane hit the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. Passengers on the fourth plane, Flight 93, attempted to overpower the hijackers, and their plane crashed in a field in western Pennsylvania.
  Although aimed at the United States, the attack killed nearly 3,000 people from 93 nations, according to the website for the Sept. 11 memorial in New York. Most of those, 2,753, died in New York, while 184 were killed at the Pentagon and 40 died on Flight 93. 
   Children born in 2001 have learned about the attack through videos and history texts. But the lasting impact can be summed up with this pathetic truth: Americans under the age of 15 have never known a single day of life in which their country was at peace.
    Here are some of the other ways in which the attack had an impact, along with links and a list of sources below for further study:

The initial impact:  The crashes in New York triggered fiery explosions.
    “The fires were started by the ignition of 91,000 liters of jet fuel from the two commercial aircraft that crashed into the towers and spread to an estimated 100,000 tons of organic debris, 490,000 liters of transformer oil, 380,000 liters of heating and diesel oil, and fuel from several thousand automobiles which were stored in subterranean structures of the WTC [World Trade Center],” according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Ongoing health problems for rescuers and volunteers: Beyond the deaths on 9/11, rescue workers who rushed to the scene in New York worked in toxic air around the rubble and have experienced devastating illnesses. In 2004, only three years afterward, the CDC reported that nearly half of 1,000 rescue workers who had been screened had “new and persistent respiratory problems.” More than half suffered psychological symptoms. 
    Also, more than 1,000 first responders have died of cancer, according to the CDC. Of the first responders and survivors who are part of the World Trade Center Health Program, more than 4,100 have cancer, the report said. 
    In a separate report, researchers found signs of cognitive impairment and dementia in some responders. 

The impact on Arab-and Muslim Americans: After the attacks, racial profiling and discrimination took an emotional toll on many Arab and Muslim Americans, according to the American Psychological Association. Examining anxiety and depression rates in more than 600 adult Arab- and Muslim Americans, researchers found that “half the study participants had depression serious enough to warrant further assessment … A quarter reported moderate to severe anxiety.”

The impact on foreign policy: In the immediate aftermath, the U.S. demanded that Afghanistan turn over the main suspect in the attacks, Osama bin Laden. By Sept. 21, 2001, The New York Times reported that Afghanistan’s clerics issued “an edict that said Osama bin Laden should be persuaded to leave the country.”  
    In a radio address, President George W. Bush subsequently warned the Taliban -- Islamic extremists in Afghanistan sheltering al-Qaida leaders -- that “time was running out” to turn over the suspects, according to the State Department website.  Along with allies, the U.S. launched an attack with bombers and cruise missiles on Afghanistan airfields, air defense systems and terrorist training camps on Oct. 7, 2001.
    Two years later, March 19, 2003, the Bush administration led the country to war against Iraq -- a military action that had been put into motion before Sept. 11, 2001. (See records on the National Security Archive at The George Washington University.) In the wake of Sept. 11, the war against terrorism was used as rationale for the invasion of Iraq.      
    In a speech announcing the attack, Bush made a direct reference to Sept. 11: “The people of the United States and our friends and allies will not live at the mercy of an outlaw regime that threatens the peace with weapons of mass murder. We will meet that threat now with our Army, Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard, and Marines, so that we do not have to meet it later with armies of firefighters and police and doctors on the streets of our cities." 
    Over time, many Americans began to form the idea that somehow Saddam Hussein, then president of the country, was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks. In a New York Times-CBS poll done in November 2003, respondents were asked:
   “As far as you know, does the Bush Administration think Saddam Hussein was involved in the Sept. 11th, 2001 attack against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon or doesn't the Bush Administration think that?” 
  • 58 percent responded that the Bush administration did think Hussein was involved.
  • 25 percent said the administration did not think so.
  • 17 percent did not know.

   That month, Bush clarified that there was no evidence linking Hussein and the Sept. 11 attacks, but the idea persisted. (See this CBS News report.)

Controversy: After the 2001 attacks, intelligence operatives were driven to prevent another attack.
   "It is worth remembering the pervasive fear in late 2001 and how immediate the threat felt,” wrote Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California in a 2014 Senate Intelligence Committee report. “Just a week after the September 11 attacks, powdered anthrax was sent to various news organizations and to two U.S. senators. The American public was shocked by news of new terrorist plots and elevations of the color-coded threat level of the Homeland Security Advisory System. We expected further attacks against the nation.”
   In that context, CIA personnel, “aided by two outside contractors, decided to initiate a program of indefinite secret detention and the use of brutal interrogation techniques in violation of U.S. law, treaty obligations, and our values,” she wrote. 

How the U.S. is viewed in the world community: An outpouring of international concern followed the attack. But that changed as the U.S. remained at war.
   By the time President Barack Obama took office 2009, opinions of American foreign policy had plummeted in other parts of the world. “Opposition to key elements of American foreign policy is widespread in Western Europe, and positive views of the U.S. have declined steeply among many of America’s longtime European allies,” reported the Pew Research Center in a December 2008 report. “In Muslim nations, the wars in Afghanistan and particularly Iraq have driven negative ratings nearly off the charts.” 

Terrorism today: While bin Laden was killed in 2011, terrorism remains a threat. An al- Qaida leader again threatened the U.S. in a video message released this week, according to ABC news. Al-Qaida in Iraq eventually became another jihadist organization, ISIS -- the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant -- which is attempting to establish a caliphate. (See this article on the BBC's website.
   Some attacks, such as the deaths of 14 at a Christmas party in San Bernandino, California, involve locals who have been inspired by ISIS.  



     Looking Back: September marks milestones

     By the numbers: Sept. 11, 2001, a day of loss 

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