Sept. 11, 2001, was first and foremost a human tragedy, claiming the lives of 2,977 innocent people and leaving, in its wake, incalculable grief. The attack would alter the lives of U.S. troops and their families, and millions of people in Afghanistan and Iraq. It would set the course of political parties and help to decide who would, and who would not, lead our country. In short, 9/11 changed the world in demonstrable, massive and heartbreaking ways. But the ripple effects altered our lives in subtle, often-overlooked ways as well. Below, 22 writers reflect on less-obvious changes caused by 9/11 in America and the world.


The current TV era, which is to say the antihero era, kicked off in 1999 with “The Sopranos.” And two years later – just a couple of months after the 9/11 attacks, in fact – “24” debuted, introducing us to Kiefer Sutherland’s counterterrorism agent Jack Bauer, the king of the ticking-time-bomb scenario.

Later antihero dramas, like “The Wire” and “The Shield,” would use their troubled, and troubling, protagonists to critique the violence of the state and the difficulty of attaining justice within inherently unjust systems. But “24,” co-created by a buddy of Rush Limbaugh’s, “wasn’t so interested in introspection. The character of Jack Bauer now feels like an inevitability, the meeting point of two cultural currents: the turn on TV toward the grisly and the morally murky that audiences would grow to find acceptable, if not desirable, in its “heroes”; and the win-at-all-costs ethos that would come to define too much of the prevailing mood about the War on Terror. The show’s validation and normalization of torture grew so influential it prompted an attempted intervention by experienced interrogators and a West Point dean. But the damage was done – as propaganda and to America’s reputation.

– Inkoo Kang is The Washington Post’s TV critic.


The art world entered a period of schizophrenic insecurity after 9/11. The ongoing threat of terrorism made exhibitions with international loans that much harder to organize – especially as insurance and transportation costs skyrocketed. (Museums have yet to return to the levels of ambition we saw before the attacks.) The increase in global insecurity also led to a temporary slump in the art market, a notable swing in the pendulum toward more overtly political art, and a boom in memorial building.

But perhaps most notably, museums went to great lengths, after initial wariness, to educate the public about both the richness of Islamic artistic traditions and the complexity of contemporary Islamic visual culture. Museums that already had strong Islamic collections had an obvious advantage. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was just one of dozens of major museums that opened wings devoted to art from Muslim lands. A select few contemporary artists from Muslim countries became household names. Shirin Neshat was arguably the most prominent. Meanwhile, universities and museums spearheaded a concerted attempt to push back against Orientalism – the West’s habit of projecting its own false fantasies onto the cultures of North Africa and the Middle East.

– Sebastian Smee is The Post’s art critic.


The tradition of patriotic displays at major sporting events went to another level 20 years ago. After 9/11, sports leagues embraced their role of symbolizing American unity and healing, and they did so by stitching more than just the national anthem into their game presentation. It started with Major League Baseball teams including performances of “God Bless America” during the seventh-inning stretch – and once all the leagues saw the emotional response to enhanced patriotism, they chose to go bigger and bigger with their gestures. Field-length flags. More military flyovers.

Later, in 2015, the entanglement of patriotism and sports became problematic when it was revealed that the Department of Defense had paid teams millions for some of these acts. And over the past five years, many athlete activists have chosen to protest for their causes during the national anthem. What once seemed like a compassionate reaction to tragedy keeps growing more complicated and divisive.

– Jerry Brewer is a sports columnist for The Post.


Following the 9/11 attacks, many teachers returned to classrooms full of youngsters who were confused and scared, and they tried to figure out how to explain an event that had shattered a sense of security for Americans everywhere. Many children had witnessed the attacks on television; teachers had to comfort them and help them feel safe, even as the educators struggled themselves to come to grips with what had happened. It was an event without precedent, and there was no blueprint for how to attend to students in its wake.

But it was only the first of many traumatic moments that educators would confront. In the two decades since the towers fell, they have been tasked with explaining any number of destabilizing events. An elementary school teacher who began a career in 2001 would have dealt with not only 9/11, but students traumatized by a shooting at Virginia Tech that killed 33, or a massacre at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., where 20 first-graders were gunned down. Then came the mass shootings in public venues such as theaters, concerts and nightclubs.

Today, teachers continue to face this challenge, attempting to explain a pandemic that has wrought so much uncertainty for young people. This time around, though, educators are equipped with a better understanding of how to treat and identify trauma, knowledge gleaned through the experience of helping students during two decades of turmoil.

– Moriah Balingit is an education reporter for The Post.


What if, in the aftermath of 9/11, everyone you encountered in your normal American life suddenly perceived you differently? At the gas pump, the driver next to you stares. In the supermarket, people turn their carts in another direction. At once, you feel unwanted, unwelcome, distrusted, alone.

The impact of all this changes your self-image. You question every aspect of your life, victim of an emotional shock so deep that you question your own identity.

Most Americans understand the nation was destabilized by the attacks. For American Muslims, the destabilization was profound – shaking them to the core – and reverberating to this day. It manifests itself in how they explain who they are, how they raise their children, how they interact with co-workers. 9/11 is like a shard of glass embedded in your heel. You always feel it; the pain never subsides.

But there is a brighter side. Twenty years on, the destabilization of identity and belonging has led to a new resilience among American Muslims. Today, there is increased involvement in local and national causes, broader interest in public service, and more engagement with fellow citizens. American Muslims did not retreat, choosing instead to rebuild our American bonds – making the country stronger as a nation for all of us.

– Farah Pandith is a senior fellow at the Future of Diplomacy Project at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.


It was midmorning on Sept. 11, 2001, when Star-Ledger photojournalist Aristide Economopoulos frantically scrambled for safety. What had started off as a benign morning of prepping for an afternoon assignment suddenly morphed into a nightmare scenario, and he found himself at the center of it.

A photograph by Joe Tabacca, who was working for the Boston Globe, captured this moment. The photo shows Economopoulos with cameras dangling from his shoulders, literally running for his life as the North Tower collapses behind him in a cloud of toxic dust. Economopoulos suffered eye damage from the ensuing debris. “I couldn’t sleep for days, and I just would stare at the TV from a couple inches watching the news because that’s the only way I could see,” he told me recently. “I was frustrated that I couldn’t continue to work on such a big story anymore, but I knew how lucky I was to be alive. I lost a little part of myself that day. We saw the best in humanity and also the worst.”

Photojournalists, like all reporters, are adept at building a protective wall of emotional distance that can sometimes separate us from the human experiences we document. It’s often a prerequisite for objective storytelling. I would guess that, for most photographers who covered the events of 9/11, that wall was much lower at the end of it all. This wasn’t a battle in a distant war-torn republic. This was home. This was us together as one.

A higher level of empathy for others often emerges from severe tragedy. We can only hope that raised bar is still with us today – in photography and everywhere else.

– Dudley M. Brooks is The Post Sunday magazine’s photo editor.


The biggest effect on comedy was immediate, and profound, and philosophically debilitating. All humor stopped. Parody, satire, edge, political cynicism, all gone. Funny shows on TV went dark. Most comedy clubs were shuttered. The New Yorker banished all the usual cartoons for the first time since Hiroshima. As the editor of the Style Invitational, The Post’s famously irreverent and iconoclastic and aggressively rude weekly humor contest, I went in at the last minute and stripped it of all references to George W. Bush’s intellectual and syntactic gaffes. (There were many, as always; that was a staple of the contest back then.)

From the moment of the first attack, it took 5 days 2 hours 8 minutes and 1 second before the first known instance of someone sending humor over email; it was lame and ham-handed, but it was at least a sputtering attempt, proposing some anagrams for “Osama Bin Laden.” (“A banal demon.” “No! A mad lesbian.”)

In a story in The Post, I lamented the end of humor. I wrote: “When people are filled with grief, they need to cry. When they are filled with fear, they need to laugh.” It’s the only quote I hope to be remembered for.

Pretty quickly, humor returned. It was, I think, the first return to normalcy after that ghastly day, the first good thing to happen.

– Gene Weingarten is a columnist for The Post magazine.


In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Hollywood shied away from darkness and violence, giving us easygoing escapist fare like the “Pirates of the Caribbean” and Harry Potter movies. Spike Lee boldly made Ground Zero part of the mournful backdrop of his 2002 Manhattan crime drama “25th Hour”; it took a few more years for the anxieties that lingered after the event to emerge within cinematic language itself, whether in the form of 9/11-esque iconography in action thrillers like “War of the Worlds” (2005) and “Cloverfield” (2008) or the “grimdark” realism of Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” movies. Filmmakers have attempted to make serious-minded movies about history and geopolitics since 9/11. But for the most part we’re still in the same escapist bubble that immediately followed the event, and entertaining spectacle for its own sake has even more thoroughly colonized the medium. It’s somehow meaningful that when we first met Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man in the 2008 movie, he was on his way out of post-9/11 Afghanistan; the universe he wound up originating is one we never really left.

– Ann Hornaday is The Post’s film critic.


When President George W. Bush met with his Mexican counterpart, Vicente Fox, at the White House on Sept. 6, 2001, they spoke of their countries’ “special friendship.” Separately, the White House commended the Senate for approving immigration reforms that would “make America more welcoming of new immigrants.”

The following month, Bush’s attorney general, John Ashcroft, moved seamlessly from terrorists to migrants – that is, from new acts of violence to age-old features of human mobility. “Let the terrorists among us be warned: If you overstay your visa – even by one day – we will arrest you,” Ashcroft said. To prominent policymakers, immigration was a weakness in the nation’s armor. Soon Congress shifted many immigration affairs from Ashcroft’s Justice Department to the new Department of Homeland Security.

The nation has not turned back. Today, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency claims to protect against “crime and illegal immigration that threaten national security and public safety.” Its border-focused partner, Customs and Border Protection, says it “is charged with keeping terrorists and their weapons out of the U.S.” Along the international boundary that 20 years ago joined friends, helicopters now fly overhead, steel and concrete barriers rise high, and immigration officials expel people requesting safe harbor.

– César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández holds the Gregory Williams Chair in Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at Ohio State University.


That feeling of isolation still lingers, for those of us who were in the city that day; who saw the smoke and flames; who frantically called our people who worked there; who stood near the Pit amid steel beams twisted like ribbon and paper blanketing the ground like snow; who daily walked past blocks and blocks of posters of the missing; who read them all, hoping someone would be found. We were united in grief. We were so sad for so many months and years, and the country around us was so angry. And eventually the debris was cleared, and the subways ran again, and the Yankees came back and so did the Naked Cowboy and “Saturday Night Live.” But that feeling of being a city of witnesses, the ones who must remember the humans who died and the humanity that rose up around them, will always remain.

New York became a cleaner, more sanitized version of its old self, with a gaping void in the skyline, after 9/11. Shaken, we turned to a billionaire technocrat to lead us, who championed bike lanes and a Disney-fied Times Square and luxury high-rises blocking everyone’s views. The economy bounced back, but the garment workers left Chinatown and artists crossed the East River and could never afford to come back. Taxi drivers suffered anti-Muslim abuse and then lost their jobs to Uber. As before, we were hedonists, but with a different urgency, because we knew that any moment the world could end. Some of us (just a few!) started talking to our neighbors. When a blackout hit the city two years later, we swallowed our collective panic and marched down stairwells with the flashlights and spare sneakers we’d hidden under our desks just in case. The city is less affordable and less equitable than it once was. We worked so hard to bring tourists back that we sometimes forgot about the people who lived here. When the pandemic came, though, we dug in and fought, because we’d done it before. We are a city of witnesses, bonded by our collective memory and heartache. And love.

– Jada Yuan is a staff writer for The Post’s Style section.


I was living at Eighth and C streets NE, a little more than eight blocks from the U.S. Capitol. United Airlines Flight 93 was headed our way but crashed in Somerset County, Pa., 30 minutes from D.C. Passengers and crew had fought with the terrorists for control of the plane and all 40 of them, along with the four hijackers, were killed.

Post-9/11, the question wasn’t if there would be another terrorist attack; it was when. And the Capitol, where my son and I would bicycle along the marble terraces overlooking the National Mall, remained a prime target.

Sometimes, the attack was expected over the “next several days,” as the FBI warned on Oct. 11, 2001. Two days before Halloween, Attorney General John Ashcroft said we would be attacked “over the next week.” In 2002, a Post poll found that 63 percent of D.C. residents were somewhat or very concerned that there would be major terrorist attacks in the region.

Today, the District of Columbia’s infrastructure has been “hardened,” with barricaded streets around government facilities, beefed-up surveillance and armed guards. Still, fears persist. Local law enforcement has geared up for tactical combat should terrorists show up in the streets. In the absence of al-Qaida on Pennsylvania Avenue, however, police will sometimes take a military stance against, say, peaceful protesters or motorists stopped for minor traffic infractions.

My bike ride around the Capitol was a simple pleasure, but a freedom lost just the same. In a contest between feeling safe and enjoying civil liberties, the outcome is far from settled. As for when the next terrorist attack would occur in D.C., that was answered on Jan. 6 – at the Capitol. And everybody was caught off guard.

– Courtland Milloy is a local columnist for The Post.


“We’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way.” Whether you’re a country music fan or not, chances are you’ve heard that lyric from Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” from 2002. The instantly polarizing song is generally cast as bold and cathartic or ignorant and jingoistic – but either way, it’s often held up as a symbol of country music’s fierce embrace of patriotism and the military in response to 9/11.

But a lyric from a different song also stands out: “I’m just a singer of simple songs, I’m not a real political man; I watch CNN, but I’m not sure I could tell you the difference in Iraq and Iran,” Alan Jackson sings on the 2001 ballad “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning).” That line captures the post-9/11 public persona of most country singers. After watching the Chicks’ career nearly implode when lead singer Natalie Maines criticized President George W. Bush and the Iraq War in 2003, the majority of Nashville artists have taken Jackson’s cue when it comes to politics: They’re just singers. Their job is to entertain. They love America – and other than that, they would prefer not to share an opinion.

– Emily Yahr is an entertainment reporter for The Post.


How old were you when you first realized that the adults you’d been told to trust weren’t really in control? Those of us who came of age at the turn of the millennium had a sense of it before 9/11; after all, we were the school shooting generation. Still, it’s hard to overstate just how profound the moment was for those of us who learned about the attacks during daily announcements or watched the planes hit on our English teachers’ televisions. For many of us, 9/11 was an awakening to the fact that forces much larger than we – extremist ideologies, past wars, our own government’s earlier foreign policy decisions – could affect our lives in major ways. It was a precursor to an era of turmoil that has come to define our adult lives, from the 2008 financial crisis to the election of Donald Trump to the pandemic.

What did we learn from it? Not fatalism, exactly, but a sense that we live in a world more closely connected than the one our parents grew up in. That we will experience the consequences of this closeness in ways they didn’t. That we need to do more to prepare for the next threat – both those we can see coming, and those we can’t.

– Marin Cogan is a writer in Washington.


On 9/11, I watched thick smoke engulf the sky from my elementary school window in the Bronx. The country was under attack. More important, my city was under attack. By that point, I’d been in a handful of fights. I knew what corners to stay away from to better my odds of not ending up on the wrong side of a fist.

But after the towers fell, I began to worry about a whole new magnitude of threat. A bomb could appear. A plane could fall out of the sky. Anthrax could arrive in the mail. Existential, world-shattering dangers replaced run-of-the-mill ones.

As an adult, over a decade later, I made plans to leave New York. I debated new locations, weighing the price of rent, transportation and so forth. Among those considerations, I also wondered: Would a terrorist attack me here?

The psychological effect of watching one’s country attacked at a young age can play out in a lot of different ways for different people as the years go by. But it has never really left me, and I don’t believe it has ever left my generation, either.

– Andrew Boryga is a reporter for the Daily Beast.


In the aftermath of 9/11, an entire generation of American fashion designers rose to prominence, propelled by an urgent belief that if creativity faded, if dreams evaporated, if the shopping ceased, then the terrorists would win. And so the industry establishment – the Council of Fashion Designers of America, Vogue magazine and legacy designers – rallied around young brands as a matter of both patriotism and survival.

They began by supporting a group show – a replacement for the many individual presentations that had been canceled when New York City found itself under siege. That group effort spawned the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, an annual competition to help young designers develop their businesses with both money and mentoring. A world of accomplished men and women have passed through that program, including Aurora James, Kerby Jean-Raymond and the duo behind Proenza Schouler.

In the years that followed, other design competitions and mentorships were born. The post-9/11 fashion industry puts a premium on fresh faces and wily entrepreneurs. And while those celebrated young talents often move with reckless speed, the desire to create and a belief in the impossible were salvaged from the wreckage.

– Robin Givhan is The Post’s senior critic-at-large.


It may sound wildly counterintuitive, but at no time was theater funnier than after 9/11. The peals of laughter that rumbled across Broadway in the months following the terrorist attacks were emblematic of the most exuberant theatrical catharses I have ever experienced. The comic relief began with the musical version of “The Producers” that started in April 2001, then restarted a few days after the disaster, and continued with the dancing-in-the-aisles spirit of “Mamma Mia!,” the Abba jukebox musical that opened that October. I like to think the success of the priceless Tony-winning musicals that followed – “Avenue Q” in 2003, “Spamalot” in 2005 and “The Book of Mormon” in 2011 – was an enduring signal of how eternally hand-in-hand go the theater’s timeless twin masks, of comedy and tragedy.

– Peter Marks is The Post’s theater critic.


On the day of the attacks, the sky fell silent. As a precautionary measure, the Federal Aviation Administration grounded all commercial flights for the first time ever. When airports started to reopen a few days later, a dramatic shift in perspective had already taken hold: Planes had long symbolized freedom and adventure; now, by weaponizing them, the terrorists had replaced those positive associations with fear and suspicion.

The airline industry took almost three years to recover, and surpass, pre-9/11 passenger numbers. When travelers finally returned, they discovered a host of new restrictions that added more time and stress to the departure process. At security checkpoints, they had to place their electronics in bins, remove their coats and shoes, and limit their liquids to 3.4-ounce containers. They could no longer hug loved ones goodbye at the gate but had to part ways before security. On board, the flight attendants reminded passengers not to congregate by the forward lavatories or cockpit door, which was locked and fortified to prevent future hijackings.

Early in the rebound, the lines at the airport were long because travelers were adjusting to the new measures. Two decades later, the wait can still be lengthy, but for an entirely different reason: After being cooped up for more than a year because of the pandemic, people really want to fly again.

– Andrea Sachs is a travel writer for The Post.


First came the jersey barriers, a provisional defense against car bombs. Then came the bollards, permanent incursions on the built environment. Older buildings suffered most, their front doors closed, their atria clogged with magnetometers and barking security guards. Architectural symbolism was expendable. We enter the Supreme Court not via the grand front stairs but through side entrances, and the Capitol is accessed through an underground visitors center.

Paranoia was programmed into new structures. The tower that replaced the twin towers is built on a giant, windowless concrete plinth. U.S. embassies were rebuilt outside city centers, forlorn, generic buildings surrounded by moats of empty land. The United States said the quiet part aloud: We’re scared.

But designers are resourceful. Laurie Olin used benches and retaining walls to encircle the Washington Monument with an elegant defensive perimeter. Security is now built into design, for better and worse. Meanwhile, architects plan for a new enemy, an airborne virus.

– Philip Kennicott is The Post’s architecture critic.


Before 9/11, federal, state and local law enforcement rarely communicated or shared information with one another. It was on a case-by-case, need-to-know basis. But the terrorist attacks – and the fallout – prompted a seismic shift in how information was shared among agencies like the FBI; the Drug Enforcement Administration; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; and state and local police. Initially, it was all about terrorism, mostly foreign. It made many police departments more effective because they felt “valued.” They suddenly had a seat at the table to discuss ways to prevent unimaginable things like this from happening again.

But it also stretched some local departments. When a tip or leak came into the FBI or another federal agency, they would often partner with a local police department to conduct interviews or surveillance. That sometimes forced strapped departments to reallocate resources.

Now, in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, there has been finger-pointing about a lack of communication and information sharing – raising the question of whether law enforcement has reverted to its pre-9/11 habits.

– Cheryl W. Thompson is an investigative correspondent for NPR.


The Long Island cable-television executive thought he was making a simple, journalistically sound decision when he forbade his on-air talent, shortly after 9/11, to wear American-flag lapel pins. “We don’t want anyone to get the false impression that our patriotic emotions cloud our reporting of the facts,” Patrick Dolan explained later in a televised apology, responding to a backlash. Advertisers were pulling out, and viewers were angry that journalists should be anything other than showily patriotic.

The incident was small but emblematic. In the months and years that followed, too many journalists would behave almost as if they were part of the Bush administration’s team. They got on board with the government’s drive toward a misbegotten and ultimately disastrous war in Iraq. Reporters relied on anonymous sources to suggest that Iraq’s president, Saddam Hussein, had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction. Editorial writers and pundits became warmongering cheerleaders. A few journalists, like those in Knight Ridder’s Washington bureau, showed skepticism and restraint; many more did not.

Eventually, many Americans came to understand that they had been poorly served by this failure of mission – by jingoism substituting for journalism. Public trust in the press, already declining for many reasons, took a big hit. It hasn’t recovered.

– Margaret Sullivan is The Post’s media columnist.


“I don’t know if I’m going to be OK. I love you so much.”

“I just wanted to say how much I love you … and I’ll call you when I’m safe.”

The voice mails: There’s calm and confusion in those recordings, as people in the World Trade Center, at the Pentagon and on Flight 93 tried to reassure spouses and family members that they were OK – or that they would be. The “I love you”s telegraphed the true direness of the situation. The callers wanted to make sure they got one last chance to say it.

At the time, cellphones were newly ubiquitous – and so was the notion that a mass act of terrorism could unfold on U.S. soil. Not only did these voice mails become digital mementos for those who lost loved ones on 9/11, but they showed all of us the importance of ending a phone call with “I love you,” even when you weren’t calling from a burning building.

These farewell calls became a reminder that you might lose a loved one at any moment, explains Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and author of many books, including “You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation.” “The impact of hearing others end phone calls that way,” Tannen writes in an email, gives “the impression that it’s a common and good and maybe even expected thing to do.”

There’s no way to prove, of course, that 9/11 led more people to use the phrase “I love you.” And we might not be thinking of disaster while on a routine call with Mom, Dad, a sibling, a best friend or a spouse. But it was one of the first times Americans got such a visceral window into other people’s intimate conversations – and I believe that, for many of us, it left a mark.

– Lisa Bonos writes about dating and relationships for The Post.

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