Five years ago, the United States was struck by the most devastating terrorist attack in its history.
On September 11, 2001, hijackers commandeered four American commercial airliners. Two of them slammed into the World Trade Center in New York, destroying the two buildings. A third plane struck the Pentagon near Washington, D.C. while a fourth -- due to the bravery of passengers -- crashed in a Pennsylvania field. Almost 3,000 people died as a result of these coordinated attacks.
That evening, President Bush addressed a stunned nation. "Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts. The victims were in airplanes, or in their offices; secretaries, businessmen and women, military and federal workers, moms and dads, friends and neighbors. Thousands of lives were suddenly ended by evil, despicable acts of terror," said Mr. Bush.
Subsequent investigations indicated that al-Qaida -- a radical Islamic group led by Osama bin Laden -- was responsible for the terrorist attacks. All of the 19 hijackers came from the Middle East -- 15 of them from Saudi Arabia.
Age of Terrorism
Former Defense Secretary William Cohen says the attacks were a rude awakening for the American people.
"We have entered an age of terror in which we are seeing the intersection between terrorism and technology, which poses threats that were once quite inconceivable, that now are part of the daily life that we have to face. We were operating under something of an illusion that we were insulated by virtue of the two large oceans that protect us and by virtue of the forward deployment of our military forces. But clearly, we had dropped our guard," says Cohen.
Experts say the 9/11 attacks brought the country together. There was talk of bipartisanship and putting politics aside.
But Tim Roemer, a member of the Commission charged with investigating terrorist attacks on the United States, says five years later, that bi-partisanship is all but gone.
"This is one of the great tragedies of 9/11. If you think back on the attacks on the United States, 90 percent of Americans supported President Bush in the days after 9/11," says Roemer. "Democrats and Republicans -- we didn't have Democrats nor Republicans attacked and killed on 9/11. Americans were killed and Americans came together. Now we have one of the most divided political systems -- outcomes, partisan debates -- in the history of our country." Roemer and others blame the whole political establishment for this lack of bi-partisanship: the two parties, the Congress and the administration.
However, Danielle Pletka from the American Enterprise Institute says partisanship is an essential component of American political life.
"People value fighting. People value argument. People value sharp differences and they want to see them exacerbated. I'm not quite sure why - - maybe it's part of the national 'zeitgeist' [i.e., spirit], maybe it's part of what we love about debate. But in any case, that's the way it is," says Pletka.
The War on Terror
The 9/11 attacks launched President Bush's global "war on terror". Five years later, it is still going on. The first target was Afghanistan where the Taleban government was harboring al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden. A U.S.-led coalition ousted the Taleban, but Osama bin Laden remains at large, believed to be hiding in the rugged terrain between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The global war on terror was also one of the reasons given by the Bush administration for ousting Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. But events have proven that there was no link between Saddam and the 9/11 attacks.
Juan Cole, Professor of History at the University of Michigan, says the war in Iraq has fueled anti-American sentiment worldwide. "The United States, by pursuing the Iraq misadventure, has enormously increased the pool of potential recruits for anti-American terrorism, and not just among Muslim groups. It's been in the world an extremely unpopular enterprise and widely viewed as an atrocity and generating enormous anger and resentment against the United States."
Cole and others say the international goodwill shown the United States after the terrorist acts has all but dissipated as a result of the war in Iraq.
The 9/11 attacks also brought about changes on the national scene. Airport security has been tightened. More than 20 agencies have combined to form the new Department of Homeland Security and the intelligence services have been restructured.
In addition, new laws have increased domestic enforcement powers -- laws strongly criticized by civil libertarians as being too intrusive. But the Bush administration says these measures are necessary to combat the terrorist threat.
Former Defense Secretary William Cohen says it is a delicate balance to protect a nation from terrorism while safeguarding essential democratic freedoms. "Should we have the government in possession of data that is all encompassing and all inclusive about each and every one of us? Is that something that leads us more and more to a sort of 1984 Orwellian nightmare where we have the government watching each and every one of us? Where is the limit?"
The United States hasn't had a terrorist attack on its soil since September 11, 2001, and the U.S. administration points to that as a sign of its success. But experts say that does not mean the threat has diminished. They say government institutions must continue to be vigilant and the American public must guard against a sense of complacency as the memories of 9/11 fade as the years go by.
This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now
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