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Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern World

Matthew Pratt Guterl


The term “9/11” is shorthand for the events of 11 September 2001. On that date, four U.S. planes were hijacked by nineteen members of the Al-Qaeda terrorist group. The surprisingly low-tech hijackings—relying largely on boxcutters and pepper spray—were the product of years of careful preparation and surveillance, much of it in the United States. Leaders of the group, for instance, received flight training at American schools. In the early morning, three of the hijacked planes were used as blunt-force missiles loaded with jet fuel. Two of these struck the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan, a symbol of American financial might and long a target of international terrorism. The third struck the side of the Pentagon building in Washington, D.C., which houses the Department of Defense. The fourth jet crashed into the rural Pennsylvania countryside—brought down, it seems, during a fight between the hijackers and passengers who had been in communication with friends and family on the ground by cell phone and were thus aware of the broader significance of their plane's takeover. At the World Trade Center the heat from burning jet fuel ultimately led to the complete and catastrophic collapse of the towers. At the Pentagon, where hundreds died, the secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, famously helped to carry the wounded out of the building. All these happenings were played out on television and on the Internet. At all four sites combined, nearly three thousand people died, “surpassing,” as the so-called 9/11 Commission noted, “the death toll of Pearl

9/11Click to view larger

9/11. Jet airliner about to hit the south tower of the World Trade Center, New York, 11 September 2001. Photograph by Carmen Taylor. AP Images

Harbor.” For U.S. intelligence and border security, the failure of 9/11 was, the commission continued, “a failure of imagination.”

In short order, 9/11 also became a powerful rallying cry for all sorts of national action in the face of the disaster. In the immediate aftermath there was a good deal of confusion. As concern grew that the nation was under attack, the president of the United States, George W. Bush, was removed to an undisclosed location. All planes were grounded. Tracing rumors of escaping accomplices, authorities raced up and down the East Coast, stopping trains and cars and questioning men marked as “Arab.” Offers of international support came from countries as different as Great Britain and Cuba. Internationally televised rescue efforts at the site of the Twin Towers' collapse involved a range of private citizens, firefighters, police officers, and military men and women. Later, the commemoration of the day's events led many to describe the victims as heroes and to transform the ruins of the World Trade Center into a site of national pilgrimage.

The power of heroism and martyrdom was both long lasting and far reaching. Subsequent efforts at immigration restriction, for instance, focused on the lax border security that allowed the infiltration of the nineteen Al-Qaeda agents. And in the State of the Union address in early 2002, Bush explicitly invoked 9/11 to authorize what has become known as the Bush Doctrine, a strategy of global and preemptive warfare meant to stave off future threats to national security. In the months that followed, this strategy—invoking the events of 11 September 2001 to justify military action around the world—sent U.S. troops to Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden, the philosopher of Al-Qaeda, was under the protection of the fundamentalist Taliban, and to Iraq, where the dictator Saddam Hussein was rumored to be harboring vast chemical and biological stockpiles.

[See also Iraq War; Qaeda, al-; Taliban; Terrorism; and United States, subentry American Foreign Policy.]


Langewiesche, William. American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2002.Find this resource:

    National Commission on Terrorist Attacks. The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. New York: Norton, 2004.Find this resource:

      Matthew Pratt Guterl