The skies went quiet after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
Commercial airliners in flight were diverted to the nearest airport. Those that hadn’t taken off were grounded. Travelers were briefly stranded.
The sound of jet engines overhead may have caught some people by surprise when flights resumed three days later. That feeling faded quickly, but the revisions in air travel that were instituted in the wake of the attacks are among the lasting changes still with us 20 years later.
Here are some of those changes:
The federal government took over airport security, which had previously been the job of the airports. It established the Transportation Security Administration, which conducts the more extensive checks of passengers, their carry-on luggage and their identification.
TSA uses unpredictable security protocols, so carry-on luggage may have to be separated, with laptops, cellphones and other electronic devices apart from clothing, and all metal, including belts, removed. After an unsuccessful attempt to blow up a plane with an explosive device in a shoe, passengers also can be asked to remove footwear before being scanned.
The security measures, and the opportunity to avoid some of them and the long waits led to a new system, and a new phrase in the traveler’s lexicon: TSA Pre-Check.
Before Sept. 11, a fraction of checked bags were screened; afterward, they all are.
States like Washington which do not require proof of citizenship to obtain a driver’s license or a state identification card were required to develop a separate system of identification that meets those standards of proof and will eventually be required for boarding an airplane if the passenger doesn’t present a passport.
Accompanying a family member to the gate before takeoff or meeting them on arrival is no longer allowed. Neither is carrying coffee or another beverage through the security gates and the size of liquids in toiletries also is limited.
Because of the possibility of long lines and delays, air travelers are now advised to arrive at the airport two hours before their flight is scheduled to depart. For a generation that has grown up with such requirements, they may watch pre-Sept. 11 movies like “Home Alone” and wonder “How did that family run to the gate and get on a plane after arriving so late at the airport?”
Expanded federal government
The TSA became part of a new cabinet-level federal agency, the Department of Homeland Security, which also took over immigration and customs responsibilities from the U.S. Justice Department. The newly reformed Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency sharply increased deportation.
Homeland Security is now the third-largest federal department, after Defense and Veterans Administration, and includes the Secret Service, Coast Guard, Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Cyber Security and Infrastructure Security Agency.
The federal government expanded the Terrorist Screening Database, which is sometimes known as the terrorist watchlist, which gets information from multiple federal agencies and is maintained by the FBI. The TSA compiles its No Fly list from the watchlist, and the data is also used to screen people attempting to obtain visas or enter the country.
The center’s website says it is “dedicated to ensuring watchlisting and screening activities are conducted in a manner consistent with protecting privacy and civil liberties … and not based solely on race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation or any First Amendment protected activities.” But critics contend it unfairly targets persons of Middle Eastern descent and Muslims and it has been the subject of civil rights lawsuits.
The U.S. currently has 16 different intelligence agencies. In late 2001, Congress passed the Patriot Act, which gave the National Security Agency and the FBI new authorities to collect and share data, search certain records and internet search history, search a home without notifying the owner and wiretap a phone with limited judicial oversight. In 2008, it expanded that authority to monitor foreign nationals by passing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Amendments, or FISA Amendments.
More secure government
Easy access to some government buildings became a thing of the past, and even some that remained relatively open to the public had added protection such as barriers to prevent vehicles from driving too close and security screening of people entering.
Some federal buildings, military installations and nuclear facilities also require proof of citizenship on entry.
Americans who are Muslim, or of Arabic or other Middle Eastern descent were subject to periods of discrimination before Sept. 11, at least as far back as the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979-81. But the terrorist attacks sharply increased assaults and the number of victims. Four days after the Sept. 11 attack, a gunman in Arizona shot and killed the owner of a gas station who was wearing a turban and wasn’t Muslim or an Arab, but a Sikh of Indian descent.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, President George W. Bush tried to emphasize that the nation was at war with terrorists, not Muslims, and Islam was a religion of peace. But FBI data showed that hate crimes against Muslims jumped from 28 in 2000 to 481 in 2001. The number dropped in later years but never to the pre-2001 level.
War on Terror
In retaliation for the Sept. 11 attack, the United States invaded Afghanistan, where the ruling Taliban had provided a safe haven for the terrorist group al-Qaida, which was responsible for the attack. In early 2002, Bush described Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an “Axis of Evil” that were allied with terrorists. In 2003, the United States and its allies went to war with Iraq after the Bush administration insisted Saddam Hussein was developing “weapons of mass destruction.” Saddam’s army was defeated in a conventional war that lasted about a month, but the war against insurgents and various militias lasted until the U.S. withdrawal in 2011.
In Afghanistan, the United States and its allies were able to push the Taliban out of most of the country but Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaida, eluded capture until 2011 when U.S. special forces landed in a fortified compound in Pakistan. Bin Laden was shot and killed during the covert operation.
Along with fighting insurgents, the allies trained the Afghan army and built schools and infrastructure in an effort to modernize the country and bring a stable government that could defend itself and protect the rights of women and religious minorities.
But they could never fully defeat the Taliban and the Trump administration negotiated a scheduled withdrawal of military forces from the country by May 2021. The incoming Biden administration extended the withdrawal date to the end of August but was shocked by the speed at which the Taliban advanced through the country and captured Kabul. The U.S. military evacuated some 123,000 Americans, allies and Afghans who had worked for the allies, but tens of thousands were unable to leave.
The Afghan War ended just short of 20 years, but the War on Terror remains, as President Joe Biden vowed to seek justice on the branch of the Islamic State that claimed responsibility for killing 13 U.S. troops and some 170 Afghan citizens at a gate to the Kabul with a suicide bombing
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