September 11's Aftermath and Anniversary: the 'Newsweek' Coverage

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An American flag flies near the base of the destroyed World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Peter Morgan/REUTERS

In the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the country was united by both patriotism and fear.

Images of the hijacked planes that crashed into the World Trade Center's twin towers and the Pentagon gave most Americans an all-too-immediate introduction to the ideology of radical terrorists. Military officials contemplated the terrible prospect of defending against those who were willing to die in suicide plots. The economy, already approaching recession, teetered on the edge of a major slump as the government poured money into rebuilding efforts. But while the nation reeled, firefighters and rescue personnel cleared the rubble. People gathered to honor the victims at vigils. Military recruiting stations were packed with those eager to serve. Bystanders all around the country took in stranded travelers as flights were canceled.

Related: Turning 9/11 Into a Day of Service and Remembrance

Citizens of all political affiliations demanded strong leadership and justice for the murder of almost 3,000 people, most of them Americans. National security became the central issue in American life. George W. Bush's approval ratings soared as he guided the nation through the days after the tragedy, and ultimately led America into wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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President George Bush, right, is pictured with Vice President Dick Cheney, left, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, center, and senior staff in the President's Emergency Operations Center in Washington in the hours following the September 11, 2001 attacks. U.S. National Archives/REUTERS

The immediate coverage of the attacks focused on the implications for future American policy, while hailing a unified public. In the September 24 issue of Newsweek, devoted entirely to covering the aftermath of 9/11, Kenneth Auchincloss reported on the strong current of patriotism in Washington following the tragedy.

Dividing lines of all sorts vanished in the new sense of the civilized world at bay. Gone were complaints of United States "unilateralism": country after country pledged to stand together with America in hunting down the terrorists...Gone was Washington's political sniping between Republican and Democrat; the congressional leaders of both parties held a joint meeting on the Capitol steps to pledge their support to President Bush, and then broke into a spontaneous chorus of "God Bless America." The famous Social Security lockbox, which had threatened to stymie the federal budgetary process this fall, was swiftly unlocked without serious protest, as Congress passed a $40 billion appropriation for disaster relief.

The World Trade Center attacks also marked the beginning of the war on terror. A Newsweek poll published on September 24 found that 71 percent of Americans favored attacks against terrorist bases and the nations harboring them, even at the risk of civilian casualties. President Bush declared Osama bin Laden the attacks' "prime suspect," and promised that he would have "nowhere to hide."

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Newsweek's cover story from October 1, 2001 chronicles the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Newsweek

Related: On 9/11, NYPD Remembers Fallen Members With Social Media Memorial

But the administration still lacked a clear target, facing an enemy with no borders. Mark Hosenball reported on the beginnings of the war on terror in a cover story from October 1:

It's not that the U.S. government was asleep. America's open borders make tracking terrorists a daunting exercise. Newsweek has learned that the FBI has privately estimated that more than 1,000 individuals—most of them foreign nationals—with suspected terrorist ties are currently living in the United States. "The American people would be surprised to learn how many of these people there are," says a top U.S. official. Moussaoui almost exactly fits the profile of the suicide hijackers, but he may or may not have been part of the plot. After Moussaoui's arrest on Aug. 17, U.S. immigration authorities dutifully notified the French (he was a passport holder), who responded 10 days later that Moussaoui was a suspected terrorist who had allegedly traveled to Osama bin Laden's training camps in Afghanistan. Ten days may seem like a leisurely pace for investigators racing against time to foil terrorist plots, but in the real world of international cooperation, 10 days, "c'est rapide," a French official told Newsweek. Fast but, in the new age of terror, not fast enough.

The attacks marked the beginning of a new chapter in American history. Francis Fukuyama had written at the end of the Cold War that history was over—that the victory of capitalism over communism had effectively ended the possibility of large scale ideological strife. But as then-Newsweek columnist Fareed Zakaria pointed out, Fukuyama's theory expressed in The End of History did not capture how important governments would become in combating terrorists subscribing to the ideology of radical Islam:

Radical Islam as an ideology...posed no threat to the West. But we pose a threat to it, one its followers feel with blinding intensity. It turns out it only takes one side to restart History...This is also the end of the triumph of economics. That's not to say that the economy will not remain central to our society. But the idea that politics was unimportant and that government didn't matter seems almost absurd in the light of last week's events...Around the world we will see governments become more powerful, more intrusive and more important. This may not please civil libertarians and human-rights activists, but it will not matter. The state is back, and for the oldest Hobbesian reason in the book—the provision of security. For Americans, security has seemed a birthright.

Zakaria's October 14, 2001 column "The Politics of Rage: Why Do They Hate Us?" attempted to explain the history of American relations with the Middle East to a wounded nation. He wrote that "disillusionment with the West is at the heart of the Arab problem.… Disoriented young men, with one foot in the old world and another in the new, now look for a purer, simpler alternative. Fundamentalism searches for such people everywhere; it, too has been globalized."

Related: Honoring 'Unsung Heroes' of the 9/11 Response

In a later Newsweek column, he would criticize America for "overreacting" to 9/11. The legacy of the worst attack on American soil proved complicated as an unpopular war in Iraq unfolded, and bin Laden remained at large. Many still feared that another tragedy would occur, and the threat of "another 9/11" became a rallying cry for the interests of national security. In "The Day that Changed America," Newsweek's Evan Thomas reported the feeling that the attacks could have been avoided:

Denial is an ordinary and understandable response to calculated mass murder. Americans, like most people, don't want to see what they don't wish to know. Warning about "grand terrorism"—terror with weapons of mass destruction—and calling for "homeland defense" has been an academic subspecialty for years. Foundation and government reports warned that it was only a matter of time before the terrorists struck America in a way that could claim thousands of lives. Yet at the White House, homeland defense was not the first job Vice President Dick Cheney got when the new administration took office last January. Cheney spent several months running a task force to solve an energy crisis that, it turns out, was probably exaggerated. His staff was just formally turning to the subject of homeland defense on September 11, when the terrorists hit.

To be sure, few could have guessed at the brazenness and resourcefulness of Atta or Al Qaeda, the terrorist network that backed him and the 18 other suicide attackers. The September 11 plots had been methodically thought out and meticulously planned over at least two years. And yet a reconstruction of Atta's movements in the months leading up to the attacks shows that the terror ringleader, for all his careful planning, made numerous small blunders. His trip-ups could have been tipoffs—if only Americans had been watching.

In spite of the strength that America showed in the months after 9/11, the war on terror lingered on for 14 years. The costs have been enormous: As a result of Operation Iraqi Freedom, 4,424 Americans died fighting in Iraq, with 2,355 military casualties in the ongoing war in Afghanistan as of September 11, 2015, according to the Defense Department. In spite of these losses, "prime suspect" Osama bin Laden eluded capture until 2012, when U.S. Navy SEALs killed the aged Al-Qaeda leader in a raid on a compound in Pakistan.

September 11 also had long-lasting implications for the home front. By 2007, the long and expensive Iraq War had become a political catastrophe for the Bush administration. Then-Senator Barack Obama's record of opposition to the war was crucial to his victory in the 2008 presidential election. The surveillance infrastructure instituted by the Patriot Act in 2001, once widely accepted as a necessary measure to ensure national security, came under scrutiny in 2013, when it was revealed that the National Security Agency was collecting phone and Internet data on millions of Americans.

Meanwhile, terrorism continues to evolve. Insurgencies sprung up in Iraq to battle over the fragile political system we left behind. In 2014, ISIS, the extremist militant group known for its Internet recruitment tactics and grisly execution videos, launched a series of offensives that took over much of northern Iraq. With Syria engulfed in a civil war that has flooded Europe with refugees, and Iran continuing to fund terrorist organizations, American interests in the Middle East have begun to look like the hydra of Greek myth. Fourteen years after 9/11, the chapter of history begun by the hijackers is surely not over.

It's still too early to write.