What happened 20 years ago remains to me a vivid memory.
On Sept. 11, 2001, I was only a few weeks into my first semester at Francis Marion University. I had just completed teaching one of my morning classes, returned to my office, put on the radio and began listening to what was normally a comedic talk show. The hosts spoke about planes hitting the two World Trade Center buildings, which were now on fire. At first, I thought they were joking, but it quickly became clear that that was not the case. I left my office and rushed to the nearest television, where I began watching the news reports on what was clearly a terrorist attack on America.
For the remainder of that horrific day, I was glued to the TV, learning that a total of four planes had been hijacked, with two striking the Twin Towers, a third hitting the Pentagon building and a fourth crashing in a field in Pennsylvania. My emotions echoed those of many Americans: shock, confusion, anger, sorrow and a desire for revenge against whomever had launched the attack.
Political polarization, which was tightening its grip on the country prior to 9/11, all but disappeared for a time. It must be remembered that the country was less than a year removed from a controversial presidential election, which saw the Supreme Court stop a recount in Florida and declare the Republican nominee, George W. Bush, the winner. Afterward, some voters argued that Bush was an illegitimate president. But after 9/11 and President Bush’s proclamation that those responsible would face the consequences, his approval rating shot up to 90 percent.
Over the next days and weeks, commentators drew comparisons to Pearl Harbor. Certainly there were similarities, among them missed signals, poor coordination of intelligence and the loss of numerous lives (including not just those who perished that day but first responders and others who fell victim to asbestos and other carcinogens released when the Twin Towers fell).
Yet there were clear differences. The perpetrator behind Pearl Harbor was a state actor (Japan), whereas 9/11 was the work of a terrorist organization (al-Qaeda). Both led to wars. In December 1941, the United States entered into a four-year conflict against Japan and its Axis allies. About a week after 9/11, President Bush announced a “war on terror”; in October U.S. armed forces arrived in Afghanistan, beginning what became a 20-year effort to overthrow the Taliban government there that had given safe haven to al-Qaeda, to eliminate al-Qaeda’s leadership, and to establish a stable, democratic government.
In some ways, the response to 9/11 was unprecedented. For the next two days, U.S. commercial airspace was closed, forcing domestic flights to divert to other airports and numerous international flights to go to Canada. For the first time in its history, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), created as a bulwark against communism, invoked Article V, which calls for collective defense; NATO aircraft helped guard America’s skies for months afterward.
Because the terrorists used box cutters to commandeer the four aircraft, the U.S. government prohibited airline passengers from taking the same or similar devices on board planes. Before 9/11, a person did not have to have a boarding pass to go to a gate at an airport to meet passengers arriving on a flight; that changed afterward. And a new government agency, the Department of Homeland Security, was established to try to prevent a repeat of September’s event.
It is hard for me to believe that the students who have entered my classrooms this semester were not even born on September 11, 2001. To them, life in post-9/11 America is the norm. The “war on terror,” heightened airport security and the phrase “If you see something, say something,” are not unusual to them. If they were to visit New York City, they would see the new World Trade Center, the flashy new subway station there and the incredibly moving memorial to the thousands who perished; they would have no memory of the Twin Towers that had stood there for a generation or the horror that had taken place on that spot.
President Donald Trump began the process of withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan, and now, 20 years after 9/11— and despite warnings from both military and intelligence officials — President Joe Biden completed that process. In a strikingly short period, the Taliban retook control of Afghanistan. Its leaders have shown no preparedness to terminate their relationship with al-Qaeda.
As we mourn those who became victims of terror 20 years ago, and as we witness the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Afghanistan, we must wonder if evil will attempt once again to reach out from that country and threaten America.
Scott Kaufman is the chairman of the history department at Francis Marion University.