Twenty years later, that is the main thing I think of when I ponder the lasting influence of Sept. 11.
On that day, when nearly three thousand Americans died either from the initial attacks or from resulting injuries and illnesses, we learned to be afraid. Learned that we were not invulnerable after all. That not only were there people who wished to do us harm, but that those people could reach us where we lived.
It was a cold awakening for a lot of Americans. Sure, everyone knew that terrorism existed, and everyone saw its dramatic effects in other parts of the world. And sure, we kind of remembered the attack on our embassies in Africa in 1998, and Timothy McVeigh and his attack in 1995 on a federal office building in Oklahoma City, where I live now. Intellectually, we knew it could happen again and could happen in America, but as a people we didn’t feel it. We weren’t afraid.
After Sept. 11, we certainly were afraid, and that fear has become part of our lives, even been institutionalized, ever since.
Fear is both a necessary and a dangerous emotion. It is a part of our survival instincts, helping us to recognize and steer away from danger. But it is dangerous because we tend not to make the best decisions when we are afraid. We overeact. Fear can all too easily become anger and hate.
In his finest hour as president, George W. Bush rallied the country after the attack of Sept. 11 and tried to make clear to all Americans that our enemy was not all Muslims, but merely those few radicals who used their religious identity to mask a hateful political ideology. His visit to a mosque in the days after 9/11 is one of the best examples of true presidential leadership in my lifetime.
But not all followed his example, and, as is depressingly common in human history, some politicians saw an opportunity to weaponize the fear for political purposes. So, fear became something that American Muslims learned to live with too, as attacks against them and incidents of intimidation and discrimination surged dramatically. Over the years, those numbers never quite dropped to pre-9/11 levels, and they surged even higher in 2016, as American Muslims were again targeted by politicians.
Fear also had dramatic effects on how we travel. To this day we experience long security lines at airports, increased and more intrusive screening procedures, and other measures that seem prudent but that have made air travel much less convenient and enjoyable than it was previously.
We also voluntarily gave up a significant portion of our civil liberties with the passage of the Patriot Act and other legislation, giving our intelligence services increased powers and vastly increased budgets to snoop not just on our enemies abroad, but on our own citizens, looking for threats. All in the name of making us feel safer.
We launched two wars to try to engage our enemies abroad before they could threaten the United States. One of these wars, in Afghanistan, was strongly supported by the rest of the world and seen as necessary, and we fought as part of a large coalition of other nations eager to help us. The other, in Iraq, was seen as unnecessary and was very unpopular overseas, and few nations joined us there. The war in Iraq was largely responsible for a huge drop in sympathy and support for America overseas, support that had reached record levels right after 9/11.
In those wars, more than six thousand Americans died, along with several hundred thousand Iraqis and Afghans—more than a hundred thousand of whom were civilians, according to the most conservative estimates. As the longer of those wars ends just this year (or at least the American direct involvement in it does), terrorism and political Islamic extremism have arguably been significantly diminished as threats, but certainly not eliminated.
I wonder now, 20 years after the fact, if we will ever be free from fear again. I also wonder how history will view the decisions we made in our reaction to the fear. I wonder how God will view them.
My own 9/11 experience
On Sept. 11, 2001, I was working in my office in the US Embassy in Nassau, reading routine intelligence and diplomatic reports as part of my job advising the US ambassador on political relations with the government of The Bahamas. When someone came in to tell me that a plane had struck the World Trade Center (no televisions were allowed in the secured section where I worked), I just kept right on working, thinking it had been a small civilian plane, like one that had struck the White House several years earlier.
It was only after my wife called to get my reaction that I left my office to find a television in the office of the naval attaché. Then, like much of America, I sat and watched the tragedy unfold.
The aftermath was an eerie and unsettling time. For the first and only time in my almost 30-year career, we completely lost contact with Washington, as the State Department was evacuated. I had no more access to information than anyone else watching TV. Rumors were rampant that the White House had been hit, or the Pentagon (which had), or the State Department. For almost a day, we had no contact.
We felt isolated, as all travel to the US was suspended indefinitely. Everyone waited anxiously to see if there would be more attacks.
In one way, however, it was a good time to be overseas. The outpouring of love and support from the Bahamian people was both moving and humbling. American flags and banners proclaiming “God Bless America” appeared practically overnight all around the islands. Businesses and individual Bahamians jammed our phone lines with calls to give their support and ask what they could do help. Dozens of young Bahamians called to ask if they could join the American military to fight terrorism.
This support lasted for some time before gradually dissipating in the face of an unpopular war in Iraq, but I will always remember how deeply it touched me at the time. While we have enemies abroad, we also have friends, and we cannot forget the latter in our zeal to oppose the former.
Brian Bachman retired from the career US Foreign (diplomatic) Service in 2017. His favorite assignment was as acting director of the International Religious Freedom office, advocating on behalf of persecuted religious minorities around the world. Though recently relocated to Oklahoma City, he has been a member of the Oakton (Va.) Church of the Brethren for more than 25 years.