Week 12: September 14, 2020
With the 19th Anniversary of the devastating September 11th attacks having passed, it is important to understand the context, the history, and the aftermath of the event. On the morning of September 11th, 2001, four domestic flights were hijacked by 19 individuals associated with the Islamic terrorist organization Al-Qaeda. The events of that day will forever be remembered, but what came before and what happened after must also be acknowledged.
Al-Qaeda was founded by Osama bin Laden in the 1980s as logistical support for guerilla forces fighting against the communist Afghan government and its Soviet Union allies in the Afghan war. It dispersed in 1989 with the withdrawal of Soviet troops. After a brief period abroad, Al-Qaeda re-established its headquarters in Afghanistan with the help of the Taliban. Joining together with other terrorist groups, Al-Qaeda declared a “holy war” against the United States. Previous to the 9/11 attack, Al-Qaeda perpetrated several terrorist attacks via suicide bombing including the destruction of two U.S. embassies in West Africa and a U.S. warship in the Mediterranean Sea.
A religious group that took power by force in Afghanistan in 1994 after the previous government fell in the Afghan War, the Taliban is notorious for their religious extremism, anti-western sentiment, and harboring of several terrorist organizations, including Al-Qaeda. The Taliban does not allow women to get an education, job, or to participate in society to a large extent. Additionally, they institute harsh punishments for petty crimes and don’t allow for any religious freedom.
12 hours after the attack, President Bush addressed the nation from the oval office, notably saying, “We will make no distinction between the terrorist who committed these acts and those who harbor them.” This set the tone for his administration’s future foreign policy, leading to the Afghanistan War and the Iraq war which dragged on for over a decade. In the days following the election, Bush’s approval rating rose from 55% to over 90% (the highest ever for a president). Thousands of Americans experienced the terrorist attack first hand, and millions more saw it on replay in the days that followed. Not only was the American public deeply shaken by the attack, but world markets were also adversely affected as the planes struck the center of New York’s financial district. Both the attack itself and the media coverage it received afterward were a tremendous success for Al-Qaeda as it quickly became among the most infamous terrorist organizations. The Taliban, which was still in charge of Afghanistan, refused to extradite bin Laden or crackdown on local Al-Qaeda activity.
The U.S. government, wanting to avoid a long, protracted conflict in Afghanistan first sent in a small, covert CIA team in an attempt to topple the Taliban without the full military commitment. The U.S. government, wanting to avoid a long, protracted conflict in Afghanistan first sent in a small, covert CIA team in an attempt to topple the Taliban without the full military commitment. With the help of local forces, the small team was able to drive the Taliban into hiding, but the military was still pulled into a long war. Although it officially ended in 2014, troops are still deployed in-country. With over 100,000 civilian casualties within the last decade and over 1,000 American troops killed in action, the country appears to be in the same place as when we started. In 2003, the war was considered a victory when a democratic election was held with women elected to several positions of power, and the Taliban apparently under control.
However, a resurgence in 2005 shattered the fragile peace, causing Afghanistan to remain in turmoil even today. While claiming to prioritize civilian protection, strategies such as drone strikes and night raids aimed to kill terrorist leaders in Pakistan had a high cost on innocent lives. Although several countries promised to help rebuild and keep the peace in Afghanistan, the effort has consistently been half-hearted, disorganized, and underfunded; leaving both the country and our own troops with high casualties and not much to show for it.
With both popular support and support from both political parties, laws such as the Patriot Act, and the National Security Entry-Exit Registry (tracking immigrants from 25 countries, 24 of which are predominantly Muslim) created a system of systemic discrimination and criminalized immigrants like never before. For reference, In 1996, one year after the Oklahoma City bombing, President Bill Clinton wanted to reduce wiretapping restriction in terrorism cases; congress refused, deeming it unconstitutional.
Five years later, all bets were off shortly after the 2001 attack, Bush passed the Patriot Act with bipartisan support, allotting more power to government agencies in order to prevent another terrorist attack. The Act allows more sharing of information between agencies and lifts many restrictions on surveillance and warrants in terrorism cases. Clauses within the Patriot Act also allowed the government to gather mass surveillance of data from Verizon customers as revealed by Edward Snowden 2013. The ACLU and other civil rights organizations have fought against the bill as they feel it infringes on our 4th Amendment rights to privacy and due process. Although still highly debated, the bill is still in effect.
Establishment of the DHS
The Department of Homeland Security, established in 2002 in response to the attacks, has 22 subsets all operating in vastly different fields, including ICE and the agents deployed by President Trump in Portland against Black Lives Matter protests. Although the DHS’s initial purpose was to ‘prevent terrorist attacks in the United States’, the organization has been utilized to target immigrants of color in particular. Under provisions from the Patriot Act that allow the attorney general to indefinitely detain non-citizens if they have "reasonable grounds to believe" that a person is a threat to national security. This has allowed ICE to launch a prolonged effort to target immigrant communities of color through a series of fear-based tactics including family separation, prolonged detention, and deportation.
Societal Impact of 9/11
In the wake of 9/11, instances of discrimination and persecution from both the government and American citizens against Muslims and people of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent escalated drastically. The islamophobia impacts even young children, who are insulted and threatened with violence because of their Muslim identity. The fear created in Muslim communities led many to flee, causing financial and social instability.
Under the pretense of national security, individuals being targeted simply because of their racial, ethnic, national, or religious identity is something that has happened countless times before, most notably with the Japanese internment in WWII, and it can happen again. When the attack of September 11th struck the heart of New York City 19 years ago, many Americans let fear and rage dictate their actions, negating to consider that Muslim-Americans felt that same pain, and yet they have continued to suffer from the consequences of anti-muslim sentiments to this day. Now, in another time of social and political turmoil, we have the choice to decide if we will let our fear define us.