Ten years after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, most of us can still clearly remember the day we heard that terrible news. This was our generation’s Pearl Harbor, our Kennedy assassination – the epochal moment that has defined society for the majority of our lives.
Or so society has told us. But what really has changed in the post-9/11 world? What lessons have we learned from the attacks? Or failing that, what persistent negative effects have they had on our world? Was 9/11 the beginning of an era, or simply a blip in the existing one?
From an international relations standpoint, there has been no great realignment of nations on the scale of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. The months following the attacks were actually a high-water mark for American power. It was only later, once the world reopened its critical eye toward our policies, that American prestige started to wane. The decline of the United States and the rise of China – the most significant geopolitical shift of the past decade, is almost purely an economic matter, having little to do with the 9/11 attacks. The attacks led to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but neither has had the impact on our society that the World Wars or Vietnam did. We might have officially begun the War on Terror on 9/11, but the fight against terrorism started long before.
For the average citizen, life goes on just as before. We might have to wait in longer lines at the airport or pay more for gas, but surely such relatively minor, mundane inconveniences aren’t the mark of a new era? Muslim and Arab-Americans may encounter more prejudice, but racism is nothing new. Our politics has become polarized to the point of dysfunction, but 9/11 was simply an opportunity for fearmongers, not the cause of the discord. I may be too young to properly judge the differences between the pre- and post- 9/11 world, but surely there must be some greater impact to warrant the grandiose era-defining titles that the attacks are given.
I mean not to demean the lives that were lost, rather, to assign precisely the amount of significance that they deserve. Each life lost to terrorism is a tragedy – but we must remember to include not only those who died on 9/11 but also the much greater numbers killed in war zones around the world before and since the attacks. To accord either any more or any less significance to an event carries consequences– as we saw in the rush into two wars following the attacks. We must remember that however terrible their attacks, terrorists are a small, peripheral force. The terrorists are too few and too weak to pose an existential threat to humanity as Cold War nuclear arsenals did. The individual lives lost on 9/11 can always be mourned, but as a society we must be wary of overemphasizing events as a whole, lest our reactions cause further destruction.