On the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, a series of shattering terrorist attacks, including the destruction of New York's iconic Twin Towers, set in motion events that would transform both America and the world. Twenty years on, Harvard Kennedy School faculty members reflect on the changes that 9/11 brought. They consider the real costs of the wars that followed and whether the United States and the world are safer, the way the attacks transformed politics and culture, the extent of the damage caused by misinformation in the wake of the attacks, and the trade-off between rights and security.
Read our expert commentary below:
- Matthew Baum: A legacy of damaging misinformation
- Linda Bilmes: The long-term cost of the post-9/11 wars
- Archon Fung: Rebuild the broken bridges of trust
- Juliette Kayyem: A success, as we define such things
- Mathias Risse: A poor trade for human rights
9/11 and its aftermath offer an object lesson on the dangers of misinformation. It illustrates the potential for false claims to widely spread even without the distribution-enhancing capabilities of social media platforms, as well as the potentially far-reaching consequences of public policies based at least in part on a foundation of misinformation-induced misperceptions.
Following 9/11, there arose a virtual hailstorm of misinformation about Muslims, from gross exaggerations regarding the prevalence of Islamic extremism in the United States, to claims that U.S. mosques were hotbeds of radicalization, to the false claim by former President Donald Trump that “thousands” of Muslims in Jersey City, New Jersey, had cheered as the World Trade Center Towers collapsed. President Trump’s claim, leveled during a media appearance in 2016, stemmed from a long-debunked rumor, first noted by the AP in the week following 9/11. These and other such assertions—which notably predate the 2004 advent of Facebook, YouTube, and other social media platforms—facilitated an atmosphere of fear and paranoia, arguably leading to over a 1,700 percent rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes from 2000 to 2001 and facilitating the emergence of a permissive environment for policymakers seeking to grant the executive branch sweeping new national security powers.
Post-9/11 America, similar to prior war-time periods—in a 1942 poll, 59 percent of the public supported interning American citizens of Japanese descent—appeared ready to sacrifice personal liberty in exchange for greater security. In 2004 and 2006 Pew Center polls, nearly twice as many respondents agreed that anti-terrorism policies had “not gone far enough to protect the country” as agreed that such policies had “gone too far restricting civil liberties.” Such an environment enabled far-reaching legislation with profound policy consequences, such as the USA Patriot Act, which afforded the government unprecedented access to Americans’ private communications, culminating in multiple scandals over domestic and international government surveillance (e.g., NSA warrantless wiretapping).
We cannot know whether or not such policies would have been enacted absent a pliant public. Nor can we say with confidence the extent to which misinformation caused the public to support the dramatic post-9/11 expansion of executive authority at home and abroad. But it does seem likely rampant misinformation contributed to widespread public misperceptions about the nature and extent of the threat posed to the U.S. homeland by Islamic extremism, which in turn contributed to the public’s willingness to support greatly expanding the government’s reach into the private lives of its citizens.
Matthew Baum is the Marvin Kalb Professor of Global Communications.
The biggest single long-term cost of the post-9/11 wars will be providing benefits and medical care to the men and women who served in Iraq, Afghanistan, and related theatres since 2001, and their dependents. The budgetary cost of these commitments is projected to reach from $2.2 to $2.5 trillion through 2050. These expenditures are already “baked” into the system, in accordance with the benefits that the U.S. government has promised to this generation of veterans.
The high cost of providing medical care, disability, and other benefits to post-9/11 veterans reflects the intensity of what has transpired over the past two decades. Compared to those who served in earlier wars, the post-9/11 troops experienced more frequent and longer deployments, higher levels of exposure to combat, higher rates of survival from injuries, higher incidence of serious disability, and more complex medical treatments.
Linda Bilmes is the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Senior Lecturer in Public Policy.
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, brought Americans together in common purpose. We all rallied to support our government and each other. In the weeks after the attacks, public trust in government reached a high-water mark not seen since the pre-Watergate era. In October 2001, 60 percent of Americans said that they could trust the government in Washington to “do what’s right” most of the time or all of the time. In the two decades since, trust in government has fallen to all-time lows: Only 20-some percent of Americans said that they trusted government in the Obama, Trump, and Biden years.
Instead of building government that Americans could—indeed were eager to—believe in, policymakers further eroded the foundations of our democracy by undermining public trust. First, public leaders justified going to war in Iraq with the big lie that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. History may well judge this big lie to be more damaging to democracy—and costly in blood and treasure—than Trump’s big lie that he won the 2020 election. Second, the horrific costs of the war were borne by a small portion of Americans—principally those who serve in our armed forces and their families. The rest of us could be forgiven (or not) for barely noticing. Indeed, public tolerance for the “global war on terror” depended upon not being incorporated into it. Third, public leaders continued waging the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan long after they had become unpopular. Indeed, a key plank of Donald Trump’s successful 2016 insurgent campaign was to end America’s forever wars.
We will continue to face many crises beyond 9/11 in areas such as security, public health, and environmental shock. For society to prevail over these crises, public leaders must rebuild bridges of trust and confidence in government by telling the truth, fostering common purpose and shared sacrifice, and responding to the will of Americans.
Archon Fung is the Winthrop Laflin McCormack Professor of Citizenship and Self-Government.
With the news in Afghanistan, there may be a tendency to think that none of it was worth it. But if you had asked me whether there would be a major attack in the United States after 9/11, I would have said yes. Of course. We can forget that our counterterrorism mission succeeded; yes, the threat changed, we have much to worry about, but we have reduced the risk. The Taliban’s success does not mean we are returning to September 10, 2001. America has learned a lot, motivations have changed, and our homeland and defense apparatus are more sophisticated. We are vulnerable, but less so than we were. And that is success in the way we define such things.
Juliette Kayyem is the Belfer Senior Lecturer in International Security.
At the turn of the millennium, a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there was a broad debate about what the role of the United States in the world should be, just how it should develop its victory in the great struggle among political systems that shaped the 20th century. The events of 9/11 were a striking wake-up call: Many were unhappy with the idea that the United States would be the grand coordinator of global problem-solving, and some of them were willing to commit atrocious crimes to send that message. In response, the United States declared “war on terror”—it chose a set of policies designed to attend to its newly visible vulnerability, to the detriment of much else.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had grounded U.S. policies (mostly domestically, but distinctly also internationally) in four freedoms: freedom of worship, freedom of speech, freedom from fear, and freedom from want. Under George W. Bush it was all about freedom from fear. That single-minded focus ushered in a plethora of policies that themselves quickly embodied the disregard for human rights in a country that loved to present itself as a defender of rights: captivity in Guantanamo, CIA “black sites,” extraordinary renditions, so-called “enhanced-interrogation techniques” that made torture an actually debatable policy tool, etc.
Once the United States did all this, others followed suit. In time, we have seen a considerable amount of mission-creep driven by the idea that freedom from fear is what really matters. The Bush administration violated values the United States had ostensibly tried to export for decades; it also violated the Convention Against Torture that the United States had ratified. Subsequent administrations have not shown any interest in prosecuting those responsible. So, yes, the United States has handled the trade-off between rights and security appallingly, in ways that profoundly lacked wisdom.
Mathias Risse is the director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy and the Berthold Beitz Professor in Human Rights, Global Affairs and Philosophy.
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