On September 11, 2001, members of the terrorist organization al-Qaeda hijacked four commercial airplanes with the intention of crashing them into prominent buildings in the United States to maximize both civilian casualties as well as exposure of the attack. Terrorists seized control of two planes leaving from Boston, Massachusetts, and originally bound for Los Angeles, California, and flew them into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York, New York, causing the Towers to collapse. Another plane, departing from Washington, DC, bound for Los Angeles, crashed into the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. Experts remain unsure about the intended target of the final plane, which had departed from Newark, New Jersey, bound for San Francisco, California. The plane's direction suggested a target in Washington, DC, however, passengers gained control of the airplane from the hijackers and forced it to crash in a field in rural Pennsylvania, leaving no survivors onboard.
The immediate casualties of the attacks, commonly referred to as the 9/11 attacks, numbered 2,996, including the 19 hijackers. Since the attacks, however, many police officers, firefighters, and federal agents have died or gotten sick from complications related to their participation in rescue and recovery efforts. Almost 10,000 people who were near the World Trade Center during the attacks, including first responders, have been diagnosed with cancer. Public health experts estimate that more than 90,000 people experienced exposure to toxic chemicals during the attack and immediate aftermath.
In addition to the physical destruction and tragic loss of life that occurred during the attacks, many Americans experienced a sense of uncertainty fueled by fears about the future safety of the country and the ability of the government to protect its citizens. Americans responded to these fears in different ways. Some attempted to find solace in their local communities or through their religion. Others pushed for a strong government response. Such calls led to policies intended to bolster national security through controversial programs that included extensive domestic surveillance and the use of enhanced interrogation techniques on suspected terrorists.
Because the terrorists involved in the attack were motivated by a radical interpretation of Islam, many American Muslims reported being targeted by law enforcement and experiencing discrimination, vandalism, and violence because of their faith. In pursuit of those responsible for the attacks, the United States launched major military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as smaller incursions in other countries, collectively referred to as the War on Terror or the Global War on Terrorism. Though public support for these military campaigns was initially strong following the attacks, many Americans have questioned whether the outcomes of these wars can justify their high financial and human cost.
Prior to September 11, 2001, US intelligence agencies had been aware that the radical Islamist organization al-Qaeda intended to attack civilian targets within the United States. Al-Qaeda had previously attacked the World Trade Center in 1993, US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and the USS Cole, a naval destroyer stationed off the coast of Yemen, in 2000. The United States identified the terrorist organization as being behind the 9/11 attacks within weeks of their occurrence. The organization's leader and founder, Osama bin Laden, could be seen discussing the attacks in a video publicized in December 2001. In October 2004 a video surfaced in which Bin Laden claimed responsibility and threatened to commit a similar attack.
Though Bin Laden came from a prominent family in Saudi Arabia, al-Qaeda had established its base of operations in rural Afghanistan where the country's Taliban government adopted an extremist form of Sunni Islam as the state religion. The United Nations (UN) had recognized a link between al-Qaeda and the Taliban in 1999, creating the al-Qaeda and Taliban Sanctions Committee to prevent foreign countries from supplying them with arms and funding. Though most of the hijackers came from Saudi Arabia and none of them came from Afghanistan, the United States authorized use of military force in Afghanistan within a week of the attacks and began bombing Afghan targets and deploying ground troops in October. A November 2001 Gallup poll indicated that 80 percent of Americans supported a ground war, but that 22 percent of those supporters responded that they would not support such action had the 9/11 attacks not occurred.
In 2003 the United States led a coalition to invade Iraq under several pretenses, including the possibility that members of al-Qaeda resided in Iraq, that the government of Saddam Hussein was creating and stockpiling weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), and that the Iraqi government may have supported terrorist groups. Some critics accused the presidential administration of George W. Bush of using the 9/11 attacks as justification to advance its own agenda in the Middle East. In February of 2003, people in over 600 cities around the world voiced their opposition to the invasion of Iraq, one of the largest global protests in history. Saddam Hussein was captured in 2003 and executed by an Iraqi military court in 2007. The war officially ended in 2011. No evidence of WMDs was ever found by inspectors.
As US foreign policy shifted to address the threat of terrorism, the Bush administration also pursued significant changes to domestic policy. In October 2001 Congress passed the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA PATRIOT) Act, which granted law enforcement greater leeway in deploying surveillance. In 2015 Congress reauthorized several provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act through the passage of the Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ensuring Effective Discipline Over Monitoring (USA FREEDOM) Act. The act extended domestic and international surveillance until 2019 while imposing limits on mass data collection.
The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, more commonly referred to as the 9/11 Commission, was established to identify how the attacks could have been prevented. In 2004 the 9/11 Commission issued a report that analyzed intelligence leading up to the attacks and provided recommendations to address ongoing security concerns. Shortly after the attacks, Congress also created the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund as part of the Air Transportation Safety and System Stabilization Act. The fund, which provides money for the families of those who died and those who became ill from exposure related to the attacks, originally totaled $7.3 billion and began issuing payouts in 2011. After using $5 billion to address 21,000 claims, representatives from the fund announced in February 2019 that most of the 19,000 remaining claims would receive significantly reduced payments and that any subsequent claims would be reduced by 70 percent.
Impact on the Cultural Landscape
Largely in response to the rescue and recovery efforts made by first responders, the 9/11 attacks have frequently been characterized as uniting Americans behind a common cause. Visible demonstrations of patriotism increased in the weeks immediately following the attacks and remained common fixtures in public places, private homes, and in the media. Television and radio broadcasters chose not to broadcast certain content to prevent offending their audiences. Politicians, celebrities, and businesses began incorporating US flags and other patriotic symbols into their messaging. Though some critics characterized these overt appeals to patriotism as insincere, the approach proved effective in winning the loyalties of many voters and consumers.
While such patriotic fervor has been credited with bringing communities together, calls for national unity can make certain groups feel excluded and, in some cases, lead to the mistreatment of others. American Muslims reported regular instances of bias, discrimination, and harassment following the 9/11 attacks. In several cases, American Muslims were the victims of hate crimes featuring damage to life and property. Some of the perpetrators of these crimes had only a limited familiarity with Islam, resulting in cases in which Sikhs and other non-Muslims were mistakenly targeted. Muslims have also reported experiencing pressure to prove their loyalty to the United States as well as to constantly condemn terrorism or else fall under suspicion for being "anti-American."
Efforts by American Muslims to build an Islamic cultural center in the same neighborhood as the World Trade Center met with significant pushback. Critics of the plan mischaracterized the center as "the mosque at Ground Zero" (it is actually two blocks from Ground Zero) and argued that the center would be offensive to the survivors of those who died in the attacks, despite the inclusion of a memorial to the victims. Public pressure led the developer in charge of the center to abandon the original plans and instead use the space primarily for luxury condominiums with a small Islamic museum onsite.
Commemorating and Politicizing Tragedy
Commemorating those who lost their lives during the attacks has become common practice each year on September 11, which Congress has designated Patriot Day, a national day of observance. Though September 11 is not an official holiday, schools, government offices, and other public places may choose to hold a moment of silence, typically at 8:46 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time to coincide with the time of day the first plane struck the World Trade Center. Some other countries also choose to recognize a moment of silence to show their sympathies for the United States.
Some people, especially politicians, celebrities, and advertisers, have been accused of exploiting the attacks for personal gain. President Donald Trump has come under scrutiny for his references to the attacks, including several prior to his election involving misleading information and false claims. On the day of the attacks, for example, Trump called into a local television station to claim that 40 Wall Street, a building he owned, had become the tallest building in New York after the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center fell. In addition to commenting on the insensitivity of Trump's statements, critics have noted that 40 Wall Street became the fourth tallest building following the attacks.
Some politicians have used the 9/11 attacks to cast doubt upon their opponents' patriotism. In April 2019 Representative Dan Crenshaw (R-TX) posted on social media a small portion of a speech given by Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN), one of the first Muslim women to serve in the US Congress, several weeks earlier to the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Omar's speech discussed the discrimination against and mistreatment of American Muslims since the 9/11 attacks and urged Muslims to play a larger role in civic life. Crenshaw's social media post implied that Omar had made light of the tragedy. Several conservative politicians, including President Trump, shared an edited version of the clip, including footage of planes hitting the World Trade Center. Many politicians came to Omar's defense, however, and chided the president for his comments.