Five Things We've Learned Since 9/11

Despite less than exemplary behavior from our leaders at times, the human spirit perseveres, sadder yet stronger.

No matter what you were doing five years ago today, it's likely you remember exactly where you were when you saw those first horrifying images of planes slamming into the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001.

As the unimaginable images played over and over on every news channel, and the severity of the attacks became clear, a sickening feeling emerged: that our entire world had changed in mere minutes.

Speculation quickly emerged that the attacks were carried out by al Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden, a shadowy figure all but unknown to the average American before that day. Our country has been irrevocably changed since that fall morning, which brought the worst terrorist strike on American soil in history and took the lives of nearly 3,000 people.

There are still many things we may never know about 9/11. But we also have learned many things, several of which we've compiled below.

  • Safety is precious, and rarer than it used to be.

    Despite efforts to tighten airport security — including machines that sniff for explosives, mandatory shoe removal at security checkpoints and restrictions on nail files and scissors in carry-on luggage — the threat of another attack from the air remains very real. Though most instances are false alarms, planes are diverted from their destinations almost weekly because of mysterious notes, strange powders and erratic behavior that would have raised few eyebrows before 9/11. And just last month, British intelligence agents staged a massive series of raids that resulted in the arrest of more than two dozen native Britons who were allegedly close to carrying out a plan to blow up several passenger planes over the Atlantic Ocean using liquid explosives. And, according to an at times vague report released by the Bush administration in 2005, more than 10 plots to attack the U.S. and its allies have been foiled since 9/11; these include plans to use shoe bombs to hijack planes and fly them into the tallest building in Los Angeles, another plot involving passenger planes on the East Coast, a plan to use a "dirty" nuclear bomb to blow up apartment buildings in the U.S. and more. What we don't know: how many of these thwarted attacks were imminent, or even likely. For many, the safety we felt back on September 10, 2001, is now inconceivable.

  • Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. While these days even the White House acknowledges that Saddam Hussein was not involved in the September 11 attacks, according to a recent CNN poll, 43 percent of Americans still believe that he was. In 2004, the 9/11 Commission found no "collaborative relationship" between Iraq and al Qaeda, despite frequent assertions from President Bush, and Vice President Dick Cheney's contention earlier that year that the proof of their link was "overwhelming."
  • Good will has a short shelf life. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, much of the world opened its arms to the U.S. and grieved with us as they watched desperate New Yorkers plastering urgent pleas for their lost loved ones all over the city. When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in an effort to topple al Qaeda and bin Laden months later, the action was generally received by the international community as justified and even necessary. But just two years later, when the U.S. invaded Iraq with the stated purpose of stopping Saddam Hussein's government from obtaining weapons of mass destruction, the Arab world, and some European allies, were less sympathetic. When no WMDs were found and the administration shifted its rationale to one linking its "global war on terror" with the Iraq conflict, that good will dried up further. Last week, the president acknowledged secret overseas CIA jails for terror suspects where possibly illegal interrogation tactics were used. And multiple prisoner-abuse scandals in Iraq and recent allegations in The New Yorker that the Bush administration is planning to attack Iran have also helped eliminate much of that remaining good will. What we don't know: Whether the U.S.'s controversial policies will make allies less likely to cooperate in the war on terror in the future.
  • Our government knows far more (and far less) than we imagined.

    Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, President Bush asked for and received unprecedented — and some say illegal — leeway to have the National Security Administration eavesdrop on Americans in the name of national security. The domestic-spying program was revealed in late 2005 and, according to reports, includes everything from monitoring suspected terrorist calls from overseas into the U.S., mining domestic phone data for calling patterns suggesting illegal activity, and even some spying on e-mail. Also recently revealed was information that the CIA and the Treasury Department have been tracking suspected terrorist financing through a huge database of international financial records. Some of this information has reportedly thwarted planned terror attacks on U.S. soil. But despite the opening of the information floodgates, the precise whereabouts of Osama bin Laden remain a mystery. In the five years since the 9/11 attacks, he has successfully evaded the largest global manhunt in history.

  • Mankind continues to possess an unlimited capacity for evil. "Unimaginable" is the only word that accurately describes the scope of the 9/11 attacks and the methods used in them. An orchestrated, simultaneous hijacking that turned commercial airliners into flying bombs and eventually claimed thousands of lives — the idea would have seemed far-fetched prior to September 11, 2001. Since then, however, the events of that day have served as a precursor to a string of scenarios — real and imagined — that continue to introduce us to new depths of diabolical thought. Commuters are all suspects, barefoot passengers X-ray their shoes, and toothpaste is screened for explosives. And when foiled terror plots didn't give us enough to worry about, the media painted more scenarios jabbing at every perceived hole in our national security blanket until it seemed that no evil was implausible anymore.

And there's one more thing we've learned: We're stronger than we ever knew. As we fight an invisible enemy with no resolution in sight, we're concerned and we're frightened, and yet we carry on as a nation. We've been fed a steady diet of fear for five years, but we haven't panicked, we haven't fled, and we haven't faltered. Instead, we've re-examined the world around us — and our place in it — and we continue to live our lives. We've graduated, we've landed jobs, we've gotten married, we've danced and laughed and loved and done things that seemed as if they might be taken away forever on that tragic Tuesday morning. The human spirit has triumphed, and will continue to do so.