On September 11, 2001, 19 members of the al-Qaeda terrorist organization hijacked planes and flew them into the Pentagon and the two towers of the World Trade Center, while another crashed into western Pennsylvania after passengers stormed the cockpit. Ultimately, nearly 3,000 people died in the deadliest foreign attack on American soil in U.S. history. Americans grappled with a complex set of emotional responses in the aftermath of the horrible tragedy: shock, confusion, fear, anger, grief, despair, and a desire for revenge. However, there were also expressions of communal solidarity and gratitude for heroes (such as the first responders who risked their lives to try to save victims), as well as a surge in displays of patriotism.
While there was no universal agreement on how to respond to the September 11 attacks, there was a widespread belief among Americans that the U.S. needed to take significant new steps to stay safe in a “post-9/11 world.” In this climate, President George W. Bush pledged to launch a “War on Terror” that would “not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.” This not only would involve targeting terrorist organizations, but also, as Bush asserted in an October 2001 news conference, “governments that support or shelter them.” Thus, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan–the country in which al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was hiding–and ousted the ruling Taliban government. More controversially, the U.S. invaded Iraq, charging that the government of authoritarian leader Saddam Hussein had “weapons of mass destruction” (known as WMD’s) and ties to al-Qaeda. Public opinion of the war suffered when the intelligence underlying these claims was discredited and no live WMD’s were ever found. And despite Administration confidence that the U.S. would smoothly create a stable, democratic Iraq, the quick overthrow of Hussein was followed by a years’ long insurgency targeting the new government and U.S. troops, as well as a brutal civil war between Sunni and Shia ethnic groups. By the time the U.S. began to withdraw its troops in the late 2000s, the majority of Americans came to view the war as a mistake.
Other aspects of the War on Terror proved politically controversial as well. The 2001 USA PATRIOT Act expanded the government’s legal power to surveil American citizens in an effort to prevent future terrorist attacks, and the National Security Agency secretly conducted mass surveillance of citizens’ email and phone data. The Department of Justice created a legal framework allowing for “indefinite detention” (the U.S. could hold suspected terrorists without charge for the duration of the War on Terror) and “enhanced interrogation” tactics (such as sleep deprivation, cramped confinement in tiny spaces, and waterboarding) that critics and a 2012 Senate report condemned as torture. While many Americans defended these practices as necessary to combat a dangerous terrorist threat, critics charged that the Bush Administration had abandoned the country’s constitutional freedoms and moral compass.
Thus, while the September 11 attacks led to brief political unity, the ensuing War on Terror created divisive political controversies and challenging ethical debates.