15 years later, 9/11 legacy persists: Terror attacks and US response have defined the century

It’s been 15 years since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. But for most people who were old enough to follow the events that day, it might as well have been yesterday. The attacks by the terror group al Qaeda killed thousands of Americans and signaled the arrival of a new era in global affairs — one in which potential conflicts between nations are overshadowed by sporadic bursts of destruction by small, decentralized forces bent on spreading fear and division. Close to a generation after 9/11, it’s a good time to take stock of what we lost that day — and what we’ve done since, for better and for worse.

The use of four passenger planes as weapons of mass destruction, killing nearly 3,000 people in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania was unprecedented for a terror attack. Particularly in New York City, where an enormous city landmark was destroyed at the heart of the city’s financial district, there was an acute sense of loss and vulnerability felt in a place previously considered safe and secure.

It’s not hyperbole to state that nothing has been the same since. Reacting to the attacks, the U.S. made changes within its borders, establishing the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Safety Administration to secure points of entry into the country and respond to potential terror threats on U.S. soil. Laws were passed to grant greater intelligence gathering and cooperation between surveillance agencies both inside and outside the U.S., some of which have since come under fire for incursions on citizens’ civil liberties. The attacks also led to a pair of wars — the first in Afghanistan, where al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden maintained his base of operations, and the second in Iraq, after flawed intelligence suggested dictator Saddam Hussein was pursuing weapons of mass destruction. Nearly all of the armed conflicts the U.S. has been involved with during the past decade and a half arose, directly or indirectly, from attempts to root out al-Qaeda or other terror groups posing a threat to Americans at home and abroad.

And 15 years after the attacks, while they might seem like yesterday, is a long time. First-year students in high school this year have lived their entire lives with 9/11 as a historic event that took place before they were born. For them, there has never been a time when you could greet family members at the airport gate. The USA PATRIOT Act has always existed and the U.S. has always had soldiers in Afghanistan. There have always been cement barricades in front of military base entrances, convention centers and shopping malls. They are growing up in the world created when their parents stopped feeling safe.

In the intervening years, many have sacrificed much to try and restore that sense of security. More than 7,000 U.S. military personnel have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many others who served — and continue to serve — have been wounded, lost limbs, been partially or fully paralyzed or suffered psychological damage from their experience. Fortunately, unlike in previous wars, more has been done to welcome them home and provide support. But many veterans still struggle to gain access to physical and mental health care. We must continue to improve our efforts to help them readjust to civilian life after their service ends, or the costs to society will be far greater than their medical bills.

It’s also good that, as we gain distance and perspective after the 9/11 attacks, we continue to reassess the balance of security and liberty that we seek. In the rush after the attacks, the government gave intelligence services and the executive branch far broader powers for surveillance and tracking than had previously been the case; as we encounter abuses of that power that have taken place since, it makes sense to question how best to prevent terror attacks without giving up our Constitutional guarantees against unlawful search and seizure.

The Sept. 11 terror attacks may be in history books now, but their impact on the course of U.S. and world history remains. While nothing may ever seem the same as before, it’s our job to honor those we have lost and create a better future for those who have come into the world since.


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