Only a couple of months went by, truth be told, between the biggest terrorist attack ever on the United States and the country’s full return to its everyday balance, workday commerce and Saturday-night-special brand of politics. In fact, the tear-stained, hand-clutching, hymn-singing emotion that brought the country and its capital city together in shared grief and purpose a decade ago — when the wreckage of the World Trade Center and Pentagon still smoldered — would quickly dissolve into predictable partisan bickering about the proper role of the government in the initial response: Should the thousands of new airport security guards at the country’s airports be federal employees, as Democrats wanted, or private contract personnel, as Republicans demanded?
By the following year, the parties and a thousand different interest groups were maneuvering for advantage on dozens of issues, just as they had for decades. The business of politics, at least, had recovered nicely from Osama bin Laden’s ferocious attack. The business of business, to outward appearances, was starting to do likewise — albeit with quite a bit of backstopping and stimulation from Washington.
Beneath this recovery, though, the Sept. 11 attacks and the government’s response to them have had lasting effects that were less apparent but potentially more important in the long run.
In return for the promise of a renewed sense of security, Americans willingly gave up a degree of personal freedom and privacy unprecedented since the Civil War, when armies roamed the land and Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus.
In response to the real or perceived threat of terrorism, Congress constructed an entirely new Cabinet department, mostly from bits and pieces of existing agencies. Its mandate, much of it still untested, extends from airport concourses to border crossings, from protecting the president to protecting the seaports. And its spare-no-expense budget through much of the 2000s fueled the creation of a whole new entity at the intersection of government and commerce: the homeland security industrial complex. Most obviously, there was a whole new market for the traditional defense contractors in developing and manufacturing innovative hardware to repel the terrorist threat — not only overseas, but on the home front.
But beyond that, brand new alliances were formed between Washington and some of the country’s most important industries.
The telephone companies were pressed to help intelligence agencies spy on evildoers in Central Asia — along with perfectly innocent retirees in their suburban split-levels. The government gave the companies immunity from lawsuits as a thank-you. The pharmaceutical industry was pushed to ratchet up its efforts to make vaccines and antidotes for use against chemical or biological attacks. The government gave it a guaranteed $6 billion market as an incentive. The power companies were told to do a better job protecting the generating plants and power lines that were among the most potentially deadly soft targets. Washington helped mount the defenses, especially against hackers who could turn computerized control panels into bomb triggers.
The airlines were told to get their empty jumbo jets back in the skies and make vacationers and business travelers forget their fears of becoming passengers aboard a terrorist-guided missile. The government gave them $15 billion so they wouldn’t all collapse into bankruptcy instead — then followed up with a passel of rules that have kept them mostly in the red anyway. The insurance business was told it had to get over its fear of writing policies covering acts of terrorism. The underwriters agreed to do so, as long as the government promised to become their backstop if the losses got too big.
A Different World
It was 10 years ago this week — on Monday, Aug. 6, 2001 — that George W. Bush, while vacationing at his ranch in the scrubby Texas ranch town of Crawford, was handed the daily presidential intelligence briefing with the most prophetic title in the history of bureaucratic memoranda: “Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S.” It summarized evidence that the Saudi-born terrorist was planning an attack against New York or Washington and it cautioned that al Qaeda maintained a support structure in the United States “that could aid attacks.”
Thirty-seven days later, al Qaeda jihadists hijacked the commercial jets that toppled the Twin Towers, pierced the Pentagon and crashed into a field in Pennsylvania while en route to the capital.
In consequence of the attacks, the United States launched what Bush heralded as a “global war on terrorism” — complete with its own expeditionary medal for the military — that would be as expensive as it was ambitious. Invading first in Afghanistan to hunt down the Taliban rulers who had harbored al Qaeda, then in Iraq in 2003 to bring down Saddam Hussein’s government, the war would come to define the 43rd president. The financial drain, though, would complicate administration efforts to counter the business recession that began in 2007 with the collapse of the housing market. In fact, the drain on the U.S. economy is sometimes considered bin Laden’s most lasting impact — some even call it a victory — on his cause’s bitter enemy.
For most Americans, and particularly for Washingtonians, life has changed in ways that are both so profoundly apparent and so totally insidious as to essentially escape our collective notice, alarm or even appreciation 10 years on. And many of the changes that Congress and the Bush administration dictated for our lives are going to outlast — by decades — the lawmakers or White House lawyers who thought them up.
We’ve grown accustomed to going barefoot in the airport, being intimately touched by total strangers as a condition of going on a business trip and buying our big tubes of vacation sunscreen after we’re off the plane. We’ve resigned ourselves to our suspicions that Big Brother is listening to our calls, monitoring our Facebook posts and perhaps even peeking at our library records. We make sure to pack our passports for day trips into Canada, arrive at airports ridiculously early, and allow extra time for the renewal of our hologrammatic drivers’ licenses. We’ve gone to funerals for young men who joined the Marines so they could hunt down bin Laden — and were instead blown up by roadside bombs in Fallujah. We’ve gone to graduations of young women who switched their majors from pre-med to Muslim studies.
Close to home, the physical scars at the Pentagon are gone, but plenty of scar tissue remains. Ranks of concrete “bollards” — shaped like the squat, strong mooring posts for big ships — surround dozens of public buildings; the word is now nearly as common in the city’s lexicon as “markup” or “fundraiser.” Because they can no longer invite their out-of-town guests to watch the sunset from the West Front promenade, those who work on Capitol Hill arrange to meet people in the vast underground Capitol Visitor Center, a $600 million complex that came to fruition (after years on the drawing board) because lawmakers realized how vulnerable they were on Sept. 11 to being blown up, or at least driven from their hallowed halls. But those same friends — who remain slightly more anxious about security, ironically, than the people who live inside the Beltway — say they totally understand why they can’t drive right past the White House gates anymore as part of any nighttime sightseeing tour.
Back to Normal
The Homeland Security Department, the biggest governmental reorganization since the Defense Department was created in 1947, fostered a whole new industry that set about winning all manner of government grants dedicated to warding off all manner of potential evils for the country. Soon enough, such traditional federal government functions as helping towns recover from hurricanes (see FEMA and Katrina) were taking a back seat to making sure that small cities from Salt Lake to Cedar Rapids had enough fire trucks and walkie-talkies on hand — in the off chance (though one politically expedient for so many congressmen) that bin Laden might launch his next attack on the heartland.
It took some time, but the country relaxed from its alarm after Sept. 11. The American flags bought in such great numbers for front porches began to fade or were quietly rolled and stored away. People returned to airlines despite the delays and disrobing — though they could no longer joke about either one. The crisp new Transportation Security Administration, travelers discovered, had no sense of humor.
The war on terrorism, meanwhile, seemed to be occurring offshore. The fighting was in Iraq and Afghanistan; suspected terrorists were held at the naval base in Guantánamo Bay in Cuba or at military jails in the United States. When two men attempted attacks on U.S. airliners — one tried to set the fuse on a bomb hidden in his shoes, the other only succeeded in setting fire to his underwear — they were subdued not by teams of experts, but by alert passengers.
Even as Americans on the street and in the air came to terms with the realities of a world of domestic terrorism, their industries began exploring the changed relationship with Washington. Regulations were rewritten — on the security of chemical plants, for instance, and the immigration of technical workers. A terrorism scare might close a single border crossing or a thousand miles of them. In a country dependent on the transportation of merchandise, one delay in a seaport or railway yard could snarl deliveries for weeks.
Prevention and Profit
Transportation, the industry that unwittingly provided the weapons for the Sept. 11 attacks, has been the most obviously transformed. Mostly deregulated in 1978, the commercial airline business nearly choked to death when all planes were grounded for much of September 2001, and it was revived only with a $15 billion infusion of federal cash. Within weeks, magnetometers and long lines were crowding airport lobbies, air marshals were on all flights, ticket taxes were up and mandated steel bars were across all cockpit doors. In other words, the federalization of security totally changed the way people experience air travel, a fact the industry is still coming to grips with.
One question now is whether the government needs to go farther and impose some sort of security screening on the other forms of long-distance public transportation — Amtrak and buses.
At the time of the terrorist attacks, the defense industry and the Defense Department were fretting about their futures. The Cold War had been over for more than a decade, and the prospect of a new era of “asymmetrical warfare” and guerrilla conflict wasn’t keeping the billions flowing. But the demand for high-tech weaponry such as Predator unmanned aircraft, ground robots and heavily protected vehicles in Iraq and Afghanistan, breathed new life into the business
In health care, less than a year after the al Qaeda attacks — and the Capitol Hill anthrax scare that came a few weeks later — Congress authorized a multibillion-dollar, multi-year expansion of the federal role in helping the nation prepare for a major bioterrorism attack. Since then, some have wondered whether the program went too far. Meanwhile, when insurance companies threatened to stop writing policies on big buildings unless the government agreed to limit their losses from a terrorist attack, the government in fact arranged to become the insurer of last resort — an arrangement that, when it comes up for renewal in 2014, will offer a clear-eyed test of how far, and for how long, Washington is willing to be a collaborator with the private sector in holding the various threats from terrorism at bay.
Next to transportation, the energy and telecommunications industries have been the most intimately affected by the war on terrorism and its financial implications.
The government has spent tens of millions beefing up security along the routes of oil and natural gas pipelines, at wellheads, and in areas surrounding nuclear power plants to forestall terrorist attacks, though there has been scant evidence that such attacks have been considered. According to records seized in Pakistan when bin Laden was killed, the terrorist leaders remained focused on disrupting transportation systems. Energy’s involvement, though, is more nuanced. Oil, natural gas and coal companies, and those who want to build nuclear power plants, have said for decades that they thought the country would be safer if it was less dependent on foreign energy supplies, even if much of those imports come from Canada, and it will be up to Congress to decide whether it is time for that adjustment.
The telecom industry, meanwhile, is a critical, and controversial, part of the eavesdropping and intelligence gathering that the government says is necessary for pursuing the war on terrorism. Criminal defense lawyers and civil libertarians were anxious when Congress passed the original Patriot Act, allowing the government more leeway in this area, and they have been trying ever since to weaken those dramatically expanded law enforcement powers. But it’s arguably the telecommunications industry that’s been affected more than any bad guys or average citizens. The operational realities of the Internet age were transformed by the state’s enhanced eavesdropping and data mining powers — and the phone, cable and wireless companies all have been compelled to assist in the search for the sound of illicit activity in the blizzard of innocent ones and zeros. That abetting seems to have accelerated the notion that personal privacy hardly exists anymore.
Such bargains and trade-offs among industry, government and the public largely characterize the transformation of Washington since Sept. 11. Tightening border controls might allow the government to more carefully screen for terrorists or smugglers, but the resulting lines of idling trucks could ripple international trade. Stockpiling vaccines against smallpox or anthrax might reassure the public and help pharmaceutical companies, but it would be a drain on the Treasury. The price for a quiet, safe airline flight of an hour might be an hour waiting in line, shoeless, on concrete.
After a decade, Washington, industry and the public are still weighing those trade-offs.