9/11 in Perspective

NEW YORK – It was a decade ago that 19 terrorists took control of four planes, flew two into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, hit the Pentagon with a third, and crashed the fourth in a field in Pennsylvania after passengers resisted and made it impossible for the terrorists to complete their malevolent mission. In a matter of hours, more than 3,000 innocent people, mostly Americans, but also people from 115 other countries, had their lives suddenly and violently taken from them.

September 11, 2001, was a terrible tragedy by any measure, but it was not a historical turning point. It did not herald a new era of international relations in which terrorists with a global agenda prevailed, or in which such spectacular terrorist attacks became commonplace. On the contrary, 9/11 has not been replicated. Despite the attention devoted to the “Global War on Terrorism,” the most important developments of the last ten years have been the introduction and spread of innovative information technologies, globalization, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the political upheavals in the Middle East. 

As for the future, it is much more likely to be defined by the United States’ need to put its economic house in order; China’s trajectory within and beyond its borders; and the ability of the world’s governments to cooperate on restoring economic growth, stemming the spread of nuclear weapons, and meeting energy and environmental challenges.

It is and would be wrong to make opposition to terrorism the centerpiece of what responsible governments do in the world. Terrorists continue to be outliers with limited appeal at best. They can destroy but not create. It is worth noting that the people who went into the streets of Cairo and Damascus calling for change were not shouting the slogans of Al Qaeda or supporting its agenda.