2001: Terrorist Attacks on the United States Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Around the beginning of the business day in the eastern United States, two American Airlines jetliners and two United Airlines jetliners were hijacked after taking off from Boston and Washington, D.C. Three of the four planes were deliberately smashed into targets in order to kill as many people and to do as much damage as possible; the fourth plane crashed in a rural area of Somerset County in western Pennsylvania, eighty miles southeast of Pittsburgh. It was later established that the fourth plane went down after passengers, having learned via cell phones that the first planes had been deliberately flown into buildings, attacked the hijackers.

Around the beginning of the business day in the eastern United States, two American Airlines jetliners and two United Airlines jetliners were hijacked after taking off from Boston and Washington, D.C. Three of the four planes were deliberately smashed into targets in order to kill as many people and to do as much damage as possible; the fourth plane crashed in a rural area of Somerset County in western Pennsylvania, eighty miles southeast of Pittsburgh. It was later established that the fourth plane went down after passengers, having learned via cell phones that the first planes had been deliberately flown into buildings, attacked the hijackers.

It also became known later that the fourth plane had been assigned to hit the White House, the presidential mansion in Washington, D.C., symbol for many of American democracy. The planes that hit their intended targets were flown into the two towers of the World Trade Center (WTC) in Lower Manhattan, New York City, and the Pentagon, the headquarters of the American military, near Washington, D.C. Both of the World Trade Center towers collapsed, killing almost 2,800 people; the Pentagon attack resulted in 189 deaths; and the crash in rural Pennsylvania killed 44 more persons. Thus almost 3,000 persons lost their lives in the attacks.

Terrorist acts in the public sphere are generally regarded as illegal attempts to kill, physically harm, or intimidate civilians to further a political end. However, international law recognizes no political ends that justify deliberate attacks on civilians. The notion of terrorism concerns the means used in attempts to attain political ends; it does not concern the legitimacy of the ends themselves. Such judgments constitute a separate issue. Just as “just” wars may be fought with unjust means, so may “just” causes be fought with vicious and morally untenable tactics. To believe otherwise is to believe that ends can justify means–a doctrine that sets loose the ill-winds of nihilism, since it destroys the legitimacy of all complaints against limitless tactics.

Because the Pentagon was not, strictly speaking, a civilian target, an attack on it might be characterized as an act of war, rather than a terrorist act. However, the airline passengers and crew who died in the attack were innocent civilians who were deliberately killed, and the plane itself was a civilian plane, making its hijacking itself a terrorist act. Moreover, the Pentagon attack was part of the same plan of attack as the assaults on the Trade Center, which were purely terrorist acts. The Pentagon attack thus also involved terrorism, even if it were to be considered primarily an act of war. Acts of war, however, are generally considered to be those undertaken by politically organized societies, namely national governments, and the participants in the act were not–so far as is known–acting on behalf of a government, but rather for the shadowy network of organizations known as al-Qaeda. Thus characterization of the September 11 attacks as “acts of war” is suggestive, but not precise.

One of the hijacked jetliners crashes into the second tower (left) of New York City’s World Trade Center, creating a shower of flames and debris, as the first tower burns from the earlier plane crash. (AP/Wide World Photos)

Impact of the Attacks

The September 11 terrorist attacks were notable for the fact that they were not carried out in retaliation for some unmet concession demanded of the American government or some private entity. Their apparent aim was simply to maximize death and destruction as an end in itself and to terrorize American society at large and, presumably, America’s allies. No specific set of demands was ever issued, before or after the attacks. Moreover, no organization openly took responsibility for the attacks, though subsequent videotaped statements by Osama bin Laden left no doubt in the minds of fair-minded observers that he and his organization were behind the carnage.

The military, political, and economic consequences of the attacks were of great significance. The United States, assisted by various allies, led by the British, attacked and subdued Afghanistan, home to al-Qaeda. The Taliban, the radical Islamist political movement that governed that country, was brought down, and a moderate regime was chosen by popular representatives to replace it. Numerous antiterrorist covert and overt operations were set in motion in dozens of countries throughout the world, often–but not always–with the cooperation of the nations involved.

In the months that followed the attacks, U.S. stock markets fared badly. Falling swiftly, they recovered to some degree but then sagged again. Some of this downturn was attributed to the direct economic effects of the attacks, which included temporary suspension of all airline services in the United States, interruptions in mail services, and the destruction of businesses and financial institutions in the World Trade Center itself. Although other factors were at work, investor fears of further attacks also played a role in the markets’ decline. Airlines took tremendous financial hits, as many people were reluctant to fly after the airlines resumed operations. With the decline of air travel, the travel and hospitality industries, catering to both business and recreational travel, suffered as well.

At the same time, the attacks elicited a strong upswell of overt American patriotism, as millions of Americans were jolted into the realization of what they owed to their country. Pride in citizenship–which had been out of fashion in many quarters since the Vietnam War–again came into vogue. In important ways American democracy appeared to be a beneficiary of the attacks. Internationally, for a time, solidarity with the American cause was seen throughout nearly the whole of the industrialized world. A notable exception was neighboring Canada, whose government’s concern for terrorism on American soil was, at best, tepid and fragmentary.

A few weeks after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, a videotape showing al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden praising the attacks appeared on world television. The belief that bin Laden taped his message inside Afghanistan fueled U.S. calls for a military invasion of that country. (Associated Press/Wide World Photos)

Aftermath

As weeks turned to months after the attacks, however, traditional, well-ingrained European anti-Americanism began to reemerge. However, the Soviet Union, which had been fence-sitting in its attitude to the West, in light of its having been badly wounded by terrorism itself, now moved decisively into the camp of its one-time historic rival. In Central Asia, America gained several allies, as countries such as Uzbekistan opened their doors to U.S. military installations, but at a price. Elsewhere in Asia, China proclaimed its solidarity with the United States on the terrorism issue, though perhaps with unspoken reservations.

The fact that both governmental and nongovernmental objectives– both civilian and military–were attacked showed that there was no intention to discriminate among those who were to be killed and property that was to be destroyed. The terrorists made no attempt to protect the human rights of any segment of society. No humane value structured any portion of the actions, which may be accordingly described as nihilistic in character.

To understand the attacks at a deeper level, the background to prohibitions against attacking civilians needs exploration. International laws of war, which are recognized by most of the world’s nations, require that any combatants planning attacks do everything possible to ensure that no civilian targets are selected. While the terrorists did not act on behalf of a state that had ratified the War Conventions that articulate these international laws, clearly their actions took no heed of civilized requirements for making war.

Although the terrorists’ primary intended victims were Americans, those who planned the WTC attack failed to discriminate between American and non-American victims. Consequently, hundreds of non-Americans from dozens of countries around the world were incinerated in the assaults on Lower Manhattan. The planners of the attacks did not investigate the nationalities of those who were likely to die in their attacks either because they were not interested, or because such matters did not occur to them. Either possibility illustrates the perpetrators’ stark indifference to the first and most fundamental human right–the right to life, especially of innocents.

International military convention has long prohibited attacks on civilians. Such formal international “conventions” (treaties signed and ratified by states, which become obligated to their terms upon ratification) attempt to protect innocent human life, under the implicit or explicit grounds that human life is valuable for its own sake. Such conventions assume that human beings have a right to life and therefore ought not to be arbitrarily attacked.

Terrorism grew apace in the 1980’s, when states such as Libya and Iran began sponsoring terrorist activity. Outstanding among the acts that form a background to the September 11 attacks is the terrorist bombing of a Pan American World Airways jetliner that crashed near Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 259 persons aboard and 11 on the ground in 1988. Two of the worst terrorist incidents aimed at American targets outside the United States were committed on August 7, 1998, when 224 civilians–mostly Africans– were killed by terrorist bombs exploding at the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. These and other incidents of terrorism spelled out the weakening of international human rights norms among those involved in a variety of political struggles.

Another terrorist act on American soil stands as a prelude to September 11 and a warning that terrorists would be as heedless of basic human rights in the United States as they were elsewhere in the world. This was the bombing at the World Trade Center of February 26, 1993, when four Islamic militants detonated a bomb in the Twin Towers’ underground parking garage. The explosion killed six people and injured more than 1,000 but failed to threaten the buildings’ structure, although it did send smoke into all 112 stories of the WTC’s two towers. The incident proved that American landmarks had become the targets of foreign terrorists and that acts posing significant risks to basic human rights could be expected in the future. This fact was underlined when in July, 1993, it was found that some terrorists involved in the February WTC incident were close associates of participants in an aborted plot to blow up a number of New York City targets, including the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels and the United Nations Building.

In the end, the September 11 attacks represented a qualitative change for the worse in terrorist activity. It was generally believed that future terrorists might be expected to consider these attacks as a benchmark to be emulated with respect to numbers killed, dire economic consequences, and the sheer level of terror unleashed within the country attacked and upon its allies and sympathizers around the world.

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