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September 11th

Terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon resulted in the United States' declaration of a Global War on Terror. 


  • On September 11, 2001, terrorists affiliated with al-Qaeda hijacked and flew airplanes into the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Nearly 3,000 Americans were killed in the attacks.
  • The administration of President George W. Bush declared a Global War on Terror and sent troops to Afghanistan, where the ruling Taliban regime was providing safe haven to al-Qaeda, and to Iraq, where Saddam Hussein purportedly was harboring weapons of mass destruction.
  • Concerns about US national security resulted in the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and the signing of the USA Patriot Act into law. These developments sparked a debate over constitutional rights and protections, and the proper balance between security and liberty in a democracy.

The road to 9/11

View of the World Trade Center and the Statue of Liberty during the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
The origins of the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001 stretch back to the US involvement in Afghanistan in the 1980s. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Osama bin Laden, the son of an extremely wealthy Saudi Arabian family, went to Afghanistan to organize the Arab mujahideen resistance to the Soviet occupation. Still in the grip of the Cold War, the United States supported the anti-Soviet mujahideen, providing them with weapons and training.1
After the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, bin Laden turned his sights on the United States. He condemned US support for Israel and criticized the presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War. Bin Laden was one of the founders of al-Qaeda, a radical Sunni Islamist terrorist network that has attacked civilian and military targets in numerous countries. Al-Qaeda organized the September 11th attacks, which involved hijacking and flying airplanes into the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.2 The attacks killed almost 3,000 Americans and injured over 6,000 more.

Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq

After September 11th, President George W. Bush declared a Global War on Terror. The first front in this war was Afghanistan, where the ruling Taliban regime provided al-Qaeda with a safe haven and an operating base from which to plan and carry out their attacks. The objectives of the US invasion of Afghanistan were to depose the Taliban and rout al-Qaeda.
Although US troops enjoyed initial success at driving the Taliban from power, bin Laden managed to escape, and the Taliban eventually regrouped and launched a major counter-offensive. The conflict in Afghanistan was one of the longest and costliest wars in American history.3
In March 2003, the United States invaded Iraq. The Bush administration claimed that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had ties to al-Qaeda and that he was harboring weapons of mass destruction.4 US troops rapidly defeated the Iraqi armed forces and toppled Hussein from power, but weapons of mass destruction were never found, nor did evidence surface definitively tying Saddam Hussein to the terrorist network that had masterminded the 9/11 attacks. Although elections were held in Iraq in 2005, sectarian violence intensified and Iraq descended into civil war.5

The war on terror at home

The war on terror was fought on the home front as well. The Homeland Security Act of 2002 created the Department of Homeland Security to centralize the collection and analysis of intelligence and to coordinate US efforts to prevent future terrorist attacks.
On October 26, 2001, President Bush signed the USA Patriot Act into law. The act authorized the extensive use of wiretapping and other surveillance measures. When revelations surfaced that the National Security Agency (NSA) was collecting mass cellphone data, the law was amended so that the agency could only request the data of certain targeted individuals. A public debate erupted over whether the NSA had violated the American public’s reasonable expectations of privacy.
In 2004, another public debate arose over the use of enhanced interrogation techniques in extracting information from detained suspected terrorists. Evidence of torture at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq led to investigations of US human rights abuses. Former detainees reported that they had been beaten, starved, sexually assaulted, and subjected to routine humiliations. Though the military claimed that these incidents were the work of a few bad apples, the investigatory reports by human rights organizations reflected a much broader pattern of abuse. The revelations opened a debate about whether the use of torture was justified, or whether it was fundamentally antithetical to American principles, values, and traditions.6

What do you think?

In a democracy, what is the proper relationship and balance between security and liberty?
How would you evaluate President Bush's decision to go to war in Afghanistan and Iraq?
How does the Global War on Terror compare to past military conflicts, such as World War II or Vietnam?

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