September 11, 2001 has frequently been called the day on which America changed. Fifteen years later we are still struggling to understand and deal with that change. As we approach the anniversary of the most devastating attack on the United States since Pearl Harbor it is, therefore, worth asking yet again the same question we have posed every September 11 since 2001: what is different about us and our country? In terms of national security, very little; in terms of national consciousness, a great deal.
Before 9/11 terrorism was something that happened far from American shores. Events like the Oklahoma City bombing were explained away as anomalies, insane acts by deranged people acting alone or with a few equally unstable people. Even when al-Qaeda hit our embassies in Dara-salaam and Nairobi or attacked the U.S.S. Cole in Aden Harbor, we could rest secure in the knowledge that these incidents occurred in far off places most Americans could not even find on a map.
The planes that struck the Twin Towers and the Pentagon destroyed that feeling of security leaving in its place a deep-seated fear. In the years that followed the attacks that fear has given way to a pervasive anxiety, an anxiety that underlies so much contemporary xenophobia. We have spent billions of dollars on new security measures, some of which do nothing more than make us feel safer. In achieving such a profound change in American consciousness, the terrorist scored a victory far greater than any suffering and loss they inflicted on 9/11.
As far as real security goes, though, we are no worse off today than we were on September 10, 2001. Terrorism has become a permanent security concern, one of many the United States must face, but it is not an existential threat. Fewer than 50 Americans have been killed by jihadists in the United States since 9/11, fewer than those killed by right-wing extremists and fare fewer than those who die annually in ordinary gun violence. A host of other threats from cyber-attacks by foreign states to climate change rank ahead of terrorism. Some pundits will point to the possibility of a terrorist group getting WMD, but the risk of bird flu or other pandemic is still far greater.
In the days and months immediately following 9/11, I was asked repeatedly on news programs: what can Americans do to be safer? "Wear a seat built, don't drink and drive, and put on sunscreen when you go to the beach," I replied. If asked same question on the fifteenth anniversary of the attacks, my answer would be same. As someone who has studied terrorism for over two decades, I am very aware of the nature and complexity of threat. I am also deeply cognizant of the need to keep it in a healthy perspective.