At the time, the 9-11 terrorist attacks seemed like a call to action that would unify America and cement a sense of national purpose. What a quaint and ephemeral notion.
Ten years later, it's hard to pinpoint any lasting way in which the stunning attacks brought Americans together, strengthened our national character, made us more willing to sacrifice or even changed the daily routine for most citizens of the United States. In fact, America is worse off in many ways now than it was 10 years ago. The 9-11 attacks didn't necessarily cause a decade of decline. But seen in retrospect, the 9-11 attacks came at almost the very moment that five decades of post-war prosperity peaked and began to diminish. They also gave the United States an opportunity to squander precious resources, which, unfortunately, it has done.
It goes without saying that the events of Sept. 11, 2001, were tragic and momentous. Nearly 3,000 innocents died after two hijacked planes blasted into the World Trade Center towers, a third struck the Pentagon, and a fourth crashed in Pennsylvania as determined passengers tried to unseat the vicious murderers who had seized the cockpit. The consequences of the 9-11 attacks have been far-reaching. After the twin towers fell, lower Manhattan smoldered for weeks, and the Ground Zero site still isn't rebuilt. In Washington, the attack nearly knocked America's military headquarters out of commission, as Patrick Creed and I recounted in our book Firefight: Inside the Battle to Save the Pentagon on 9-11. The wars that ensued have cost more American lives than the terrorist attacks themselves: According to the Washington Post, 4,442 U.S. servicemembers have died in Iraq, and 1,584 in Afghanistan. Perhaps 10 times as many have been injured. And civilian casualties in those countries have far outnumbered the American casualty count. For that small slice of humanity and their loved ones, history did in fact change forever on Sept. 11, 2001.
It is striking, however, to consider how much didn't change after 9-11, even though we felt sure then that it would. Aside from overseas military operations, the United States hasn't accomplished anything big since 9-11, and in some ways its standing has diminished. For example:
The shaky economy. In 2001, America's GDP accounted for about 23 percent of the world's output, according to the International Monetary Fund. Today that's down to about 19 percent, and it's likely to keep falling. The biggest reason is the natural rise of developing nations like China and India, which isn't necessarily a bad thing since new consumers in those nations will someday spend their money on American goods and services. But a nation's strategic and military influence comes directly from its economic might, and other nations are doing more than the United States to make sure they have the economic strength to project power. Here, chronic high unemployment—which policymakers have so far been unable to fix—seems likely to keep chipping away at American prosperity.
The national debt. The U.S. government's total debt in 2001 was $5.8 trillion, a manageable 56 percent of total GDP. Today, the debt is nearly $15 trillion, or roughly 100 percent of GDP. The national debt is on the verge of becoming a national disaster, not because it's so large but because Washington politicians refuse to take the prudent steps necessary to deal with it. America's response to the 9-11 attacks accounts for part of the debt, since the cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and new spending on homeland security totals about $1.6 trillion, according to the Wall Street Journal. But the rest comes from unfinanced tax cuts, growing spending on entitlement programs like Medicare, and recession-era stimulus spending. In 2001, the debt basically wasn't a problem. Today, it's so large that it triggered the first-ever downgrade of American's credit rating by Standard & Poor's and could depress economic growth indefinitely. We've spent the decade since 9-11 making ourselves feel better by spending money we don't have. That fundamentally weakens the nation.
Political dysfunction. America had fractious politics before 9-11, so it's no surprise that we have the same thing after. The 1995 government shutdown, the 1998 impeachment of Bill Clinton and the infamous "hanging chad" presidential election that George W. Bush barely won in 2000 fueled the same kind of blue-red vitriol we have now, with the brief period of comity that followed 9-11 standing as an exception to that. Still, Americans seem more disgusted with politicians today than they've ever been. In a Pew Research poll, for instance, just 11 percent of Americans say they're content with government. Before 9-11, it was 33 percent, and immediately after, it soared to 53 percent. In Gallup polls, 84 percent of people say they disapprove of the job Congress is doing, the worst showing in the nearly four-decade history of that poll. Except for the temporary spike after 9-11, government-approval ratings have been falling for most of the last decade, even during the deceptive boom years of 2005 and 2006.
Civic dysfunction. It was a natural impulse among leaders in New York City to rebuild Ground Zero and create a national memorial to the victims of the 9-11 attacks. But the monstrous construction project they've created has become a long-dealyed and over-budget embarrassment that will dump unneeded office space onto the New York market and even require higher tolls at some New York bridges and tunnels, to help pay for it. New York Times columnist Joe Nocera calls the $11 billion project a "white elephant" that's "an example of just about everything that's wrong with modern government." The 2,753 victims of the World Trade Center attacks deserve better.
Falling satisfaction. Americans are bummed out, and not just because of the recent recession. The percentage of Americans who tell Gallup that they're satisfied with the way things are going in the United States peaked in 1999 at 71 percent. Americans today feel almost exactly the opposite, with just 11 percent saying they're satisfied. The weak economy has clearly pushed that number to dismal levels, but the satisfaction number has been falling for most of the last 10 years.
One likely reason: Despite the brief euphoria caused by the housing boom between 2003 and 2007, Americans in general have been falling behind. Over the last decade, household income for the typical middle-class family has fallen by about $5,000, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank. That's because of globalization and the technology revolution, not 9-11. Still, the post-9-11 war on terror has diverted money and resources to the military when it could have been used to improve education, reduce the debt or otherwise invest in America's economic future. Falling living standards go a long way toward explaining Americans' growing disgust with government, and even with each other.
One thing that has gone right since 9-11 is homeland security. Despite a few close calls, America has now gone a decade without a major foreign terrorist attack, probably because of diligence by an expanded cadre of counterterrorism officials, plus luck. And the one part of government that Americans still seem to respect is the military. Before the 9-11 attacks, about 15 percent of 16-to-21-year-olds showed an interest in serving in the military. That spiked after 9-11, but today it's still a bit higher, at 18 percent—and that reading is from before the May 1 takedown of Osama bin Laden, which certainly swelled a few young chests.
The al Qaeda terrorists who engineered the 9-11 attacks are now in bloody retreat, and some analysts believe their means of destruction are wrecked for good. So it may be safe to say we've avenged the murder of nearly 3,000 Americans on 9-11. But have we properly honored those lost souls by making America a better place during the years since they perished? Let's ask again in another 10 years.