It seemed almost unfathomable before Sept. 11, 2001, that terrorists could commandeer fuel-bloated jets to crash into buildings, incinerating two towers of steel and concrete in New York and ripping into the Pentagon. Those acts, along with the hijacking of another plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, killed nearly 3,000 people and left us grieving, fearful and stripped of our sense of security — or maybe our sense of complacency, the feeling that our borders and skies and buildings were impervious to attack.
In the 15 years since, the gaping hole in the Manhattan skyline has been gradually filled with a reimagined World Trade Center that includes a museum and memorial. Collectively, respectfully, the country has honored the loss of life and forever turned a date on a calendar — 9/11 — into a universally recognized shorthand for the deadliest foreign attack on American soil.
It’s been more complicated to rebuild a sense of security. Sure, that raw fear at getting on an airplane has been tamped down and stowed away with our little three-ounce bottles of carry-on liquids as millions of people, years ago, returned to flying hither and yon. But terrorism has evolved and spread despite more than a decade of the war we declared on terrorism. Al Qaeda, the group behind the 9/11 attacks, has spawned a number of virulent offshoots, most notably Islamic State, which adeptly uses social media to recruit far-flung zealots to kill and die for its barbaric version of Islam.
In the last few years, terrorist attacks have moved off airplanes and trains and onto streets and into private gatherings. The list of headline-grabbing incidents stretches from the Boston Marathon in 2013 to the boulevards of Paris last November; from a Christmas party in San Bernardino last December to a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., in June; and from an Army base in Texas in 2009 to a promenade along the beach in Nice, France, two months ago. The Orlando massacre, which left 49 people dead in addition to the shooter, was the deadliest terrorist attack in the U.S. since 9/11.
Today we wonder less whether a plane will blow up than whether a shooter will open fire in the terminal. Reports of gunfire on a recent Sunday evening at Los Angeles International Airport sent terrified people nearly stampeding out of the terminals and even onto the tarmac. False alarm. Just a couple of loud noises someone heard.
Meanwhile, the hateful anti-Muslim prejudice kindled by the 9/11 attacks only seems to have gotten worse, fueled by the illogical notion that if most of the terrorists in the last 15 years from 9/11 to Orlando were radicalized Islamic militants, then most Muslims must be secret terrorists. It was then-President George W. Bush who, just days after the September attacks, said that the terrorists had hijacked Islam as well as those planes. It’s still being hijacked when Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump pledges to bar Muslims, directly or indirectly, from entering the U.S.
Regardless of what you might hear in the presidential campaign, policymakers know that defeating terrorism is more than just a military or national security exercise. It’s also a matter of fixing the problems that are driving people to follow nihilistic, bloodthirsty leaders selling an extraordinarily vicious brand of Islam. Yet the hopeful Arab Spring has been followed by unremitting violence and unrest and a torrent of refugees. Promised cease-fires have quickly come and gone. And rather than extricating the United States completely from Iraq and Afghanistan, our leaders are debating whether to maintain or even expand our military commitments there.
That’s why we seem just as trapped as ever in the anxieties and suspicions that took hold of us this day 15 years ago. We’re filling the hole in New York, but not much else.
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