Shortly after the Twin Towers fell on September 11, 2001, the nation began to mourn, and around the country Americans began to commemorate the victims and demonstrate their patriotism. Some flew the American flag from their front porches and car antennas. Others pinned it to their lapels or wore it on t-shirts. Sports teams postponed games. Celebrities organized benefit concerts and performances. People attended impromptu candlelight vigils and participated in moments of silence. They gathered in common places, like Chicago’s Daley Plaza, Honolulu’s Waikiki Beach and especially New York City’s Union Square Park, to post tributes to the dead and to share their grief with others. “I don’t know why I’ve been coming here, except that I’m confused,” one young man in Union Square told a reporter from the New York Times. “Also a sense of unity. We all feel differently about what to do in response, but everybody seems to agree that we’ve got to be together no matter what happens. So you get a little bit of hope in togetherness.”
9/11 Attacks: U.S. Reaction
Meanwhile, people turned to their faith to help them make sense of the attacks. “We join with our fellow Americans in prayer for the killed and injured,” the imam at the Al-Abidin mosque in Queens told his congregation. At the Washington National Cathedral, the Reverend Billy Graham implored his listeners “not to implode and disintegrate emotionally and spiritually as a people and a nation,” but to “choose to become stronger through all the struggle to rebuild on a solid foundation.” And at Grace Church in Manhattan, the Reverend Bert Breiner asked parishioners to “please go forth into this world with love as though everything depended on it, because as we now know, everything does depend on it.”
Americans tried to bolster the rescue effort in any way they could. Cities and towns sent firefighters and EMTs to Ground Zero. Lines to donate blood at Red Cross offices and other blood banks were incredibly long–there was an entire day’s wait in Madison, Wisconsin. New and established charities raised money for the victims and rescue workers. It was possible to donate to the Red Cross with just one click on Amazon.com, and the organization raised $3 million that way in just two days.
But for some Americans, their grief manifested itself as anger and frustration, and they looked for someone to blame for the attacks of September 11th. Reverend Jerry Falwell made news by saying on his television program “The 700 Club” that “I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way–all of them who have tried to secularize America–I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen.'”
Anger erupted into attacks on people of Arab and Muslim descent, with nearly 600 incidents in the first 10 days after the attacks. Five hundred furious people mobbed a Chicago-area mosque and refused to leave until they were forced out by police. A Pakistani grocer was murdered in Texas.
A man on an anti-Arab rampage in Arizona fatally shot a gas station owner who was an Indian-born Sikh. (This type of confusion was not uncommon, since many Sikhs wear turbans, have beards and are seen as looking, as a member of the Sikh community told the New York Times, “more like bin Laden than Muslims do.”) FBI Director Robert Mueller said over and over again that “vigilante attacks and threats against Arab-Americans will not be tolerated,” but harassment and violence at mosques and in Arab-American neighborhoods continued for months.
Political leaders urged calm and promised aid. New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, who rose to national prominence thanks to his leadership in the wake of the attacks, urged decisive action against terrorism and encouraged New Yorkers to try to return to their normal lives. He appeared on “Saturday Night Live” with several firefighters on September 29 (in the opening monologue, Lorne Michaels asked if it was okay to be funny at such a sad time; Giuliani replied, “Why start now?”) and orchestrated a major promotional campaign designed to lure tourists back to his beleaguered city. New York Governor George Pataki activated the state’s Emergency Operations Center; created a new Office of Public Safety to check on the state’s bridges, tunnels and water supplies and won bipartisan support for a plan to establish a Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and a state-run World Trade Center Relief Fund.
Meanwhile, President George W. Bush was able to win a broad mandate to act in the nation’s defense. In a speech on September 20, he asked citizens to be “calm and resolute, even in the face of a continuing threat,” and promised that the United States would triumph over terrorism–“stop it, eliminate it, destroy it where it grows.” After the United States began military operations in Afghanistan in October, the president’s approval rating soared to 90 percent. Congressional leaders responded, too: They passed a $40 billion disaster relief bill in September and, the next year, the USA Patriot Act, which gave investigators a great deal of leeway in their domestic surveillance activities and made immigration laws more stringent.
Despite such anti-terrorist measures, many Americans continued to feel uneasy. According to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, nearly half of all Americans reported symptoms of stress and depression after the attacks. Many thousands of Americans lost loved ones on September 11. Millions more watched the unrelenting news coverage of the attacks, looked at the wrenching photographs in the newspaper and listened to heartbreaking interviews with firefighters, survivors and relatives of victims feeling that, at least in some small way, the trauma of the day was theirs too. Memorials, commemorative ceremonies and time have helped many to begin to heal, but for others the shock and horror of that day in September remains painfully fresh.
READ MORE: 9/11 Lost and Found: The Items Left Behind
9/11 Attacks: International Reaction
“Today,” the French newspaper Le Monde announced on September 12, 2001, “we are all Americans.” People around the world agreed: The terrorist attacks of the previous day had felt like attacks on everyone, everywhere. They provoked an unprecedented expression of shock, horror, solidarity and sympathy for the 9/11 victims and their families.
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Citizens of 78 countries died in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania on September 11, and people around the world mourned lost friends and neighbors. They held candlelight vigils. They donated money and goods to the Red Cross and other rescue and relief organizations. Flowers piled up in front of American embassies. Cities and countries commemorated the attacks in a variety of ways: Queen Elizabeth II sang the American national anthem at Buckingham Palace’s Changing of the Guard, while in Brazil, Rio de Janeiro put up huge billboards that showed the city’s famous Christ the Redeemer statue embracing the New York City skyline.
Meanwhile, statesmen and women rushed to condemn the attacks and to offer whatever aid they could to the United States. Russian president Vladimir Putin called the strikes “a blatant challenge to humanity,” while German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder declared that the events were “not only attacks on the people in the United States, our friends in America, but also against the entire civilized world, against our own freedom, against our own values, values which we share with the American people.” He added, “We will not let these values be destroyed.” Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien denounced the “cowardly and depraved assault.” He tightened security along the border and arranged for hundreds of grounded airplanes to land at Canadian airports.
Even leaders of countries that did not tend to get along terribly well with the American government expressed their sorrow and dismay. The Cuban foreign minister offered airspace and airports to American planes. Chinese and Iranian officials sent their condolences. And the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, visibly dismayed, told reporters in Gaza that the attacks were “unbelievable, unbelievable, unbelievable.” “We completely condemn this very dangerous attack,” he said, “and I convey my condolences to the American people, to the American president and to the American administration.”
But public reaction was mixed. The leader of the Islamic militant group Hamas announced, “no doubt this is a result of the injustice the U.S. practices against the weak in the world.” Likewise, people in many different countries believed that the attacks were a consequence of America’s cultural hegemony, political meddling in the Middle East and interventionism in world affairs. The Rio billboards hadn’t been up for long before someone defaced them with the slogan “The U.S. is the enemy of peace.” Some, especially in Arab countries, openly celebrated the attacks. But most people, even those who believed that the United States was partially or entirely responsible for its own misfortune, still expressed sorrow and anger at the deaths of innocent people.
On September 12, the 19 ambassadors of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) declared that the attack on the United States was an attack on all of the member nations. This statement of solidarity was mostly symbolic–NATO did not authorize any specific military action–but it was still unprecedented. It was the first time that the organization had ever invoked the mutual defense section of its charter (intended to protect vulnerable European nations from Soviet invasion during the Cold War). NATO eventually sent five airplanes to help keep an eye on American airspace.
Likewise, on September 12, the United Nations Security Council called on all nations to “redouble their efforts” to thwart and prosecute terrorists. Two weeks later, it passed another resolution that urged states to “suppress the financing of terrorism” and to aid in any anti-terrorism campaigns.
But these declarations of support and solidarity didn’t mean that other countries gave the United States a free hand to retaliate however–and against whomever–it pleased. Allies and adversaries alike urged caution, warning that an indiscriminate or disproportionate reaction could alienate Muslims around the world. In the end, almost 30 nations pledged military support to the United States, and many more offered other kinds of cooperation. Most agreed with George W. Bush that, after September 11, the fight against terrorism was “the world’s fight.”
The War on Terror
The 9/11 attacks prompted the U.S. president to declare a global “War on Terror” on September 20, 2001. Bush called on world leaders to join the United States, saying, “Every nation in every region now has a decision to make. Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced “Operation Enduring Freedom" five days later.
Joint airstrikes with Great Britain targeting Taliban and al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan began on October 7, 2001, with the ground war beginning later that month. Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. forces in his hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on May 2, 2011. The War in Afghanistan officially ended in December of 2014, though a number of American troops remained on the ground.
The Invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003 by U.S. and coalition forces marked the beginning of the Iraq War. President Bush announced: “The battle of Iraq is one victory in a war on terror that began on September the 11th, 2001 and still goes on.”
It did not end until August 30, 2010, when President Barack Obama announced the end of combat in Iraq. (Former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had been executed in December of 2006 for war crimes and crimes against humanity.)
Never Again: The 9/11 Commission Report and The Department of Homeland Security
The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, or “9/11 Commission,” was created on November 27, 2002, when President George W. Bush tasked the bipartisan group with creating a report on the events leading up to 9/11. It was released on July 22, 2004 and examined the failings of government agencies who did not act on existing intelligence and provided recommendations to guard against future terrorist threats.
The Office of Homeland Security was created when the Homeland Security Act of 2002 was signed into law by George W. Bush with the mission to “coordinate the executive branch's efforts to detect, prepare for, prevent, protect against, respond to, and recover from terrorist attacks within the United States.” Twenty-two different agencies were consolidated underneath it and its responsibilities span from preventing terror attacks to covering border security, immigrations, customs and disaster relief and prevention.