It began as a picture-perfect September day, clear and sunny across much of the eastern United States. Pilots call it "severe clear" – the kind of low-humidity, cloudless conditions that allow aviators to see forever. But in an instant, that perfect day turned into a nightmare. The skies over New York City were streaked with flame and smeared with smoke. One side of the Pentagon was charred black. A patch of Pennsylvania smoldered with the faint traces of battle. And gray ash covered a maimed Manhattan. "Night fell on a different world," then-President George W. Bush observed.
Osama bin Laden's global guerrilla war had reached our shores. "We do not differentiate between those dressed in military uniforms and civilians," he had warned in 1998. "They are all targets." That became brutally clear on Sept. 11, 2001.
Whatever we call 9/11 – the beginning of a war, the end of America's invulnerability, an exclamation point to decades of unanswered terror, al-Qaida's high-water mark, America's wake-up call – one thing is beyond debate: it changed us, and it changed the world.
Tommy Franks, the general who would command the early phases of U.S. counterstrikes against bin Laden, called Sept. 11 a "crease in history," a fault line that changed how we piece together the past, live the present and look at the future.
The following are just a few of the ways our world is different 10 years later.
In the Skies | The terrorists began their day of infamy at the airport. Before 9/11, a typical traveler could arrive at the airport minutes before takeoff, rush through the baggage check, hop on a plane, and wave to his family as he taxied away. After 9/11, travelers had to arrive hours early to navigate a labyrinth of security checks, subjected to full-body searches and an array of active and passive monitors; 8-month-old babies have been patted down, and a 75-year-old congressman has been strip-searched. Once travelers make it through that harrowing, humiliating gantlet, they pass through an armed phalanx of militarized police forces, sometimes bolstered by National Guard units. Fighter jets circle above some airports, just in case. There are strict rules governing where nontravelers can go inside airports, when it's OK to stand on the plane, and how much shampoo to pack. And still, today every passenger steps on the plane wondering, "What if all that screening didn't work?"
Manhattan | The enemy forever altered New York's skyline, maiming Manhattan and killing 2,752 people inside the World Trade Center and aboard the planes that felled the Twin Towers.
The enemy's prime target truly was a center for world trade, a fact underscored by the 115 nationalities represented in 9/11's final death toll. Today a memorial, a museum and a new skyscraper are taking shape where the towers once stood. The footprints of the towers form two reflecting pools, with the monument's walls serving as waterfalls. To remind us that the enemy's war against the United States began long before 2001, the memorial includes the names of every person killed both in the attacks on 9/11, and in the previous attack on the World Trade Center on Feb. 26, 1993.
Nearby, a massive skyscraper is edging heavenward; it should be open for business in 2013.
The Pentagon | The enemy killed 184 people, including a 3-year-old girl, when Flight 77 slammed into our nation's military headquarters.
The Pentagon was a target because, like the World Trade Center, it is a symbol of U.S. power. Within those five walls, Americans have planned peacekeeping missions for the Balkans and Lebanon; humanitarian efforts to save Berliners, Somalis and Kurds; the defense of Korea, Vietnam and Kuwait; the toppling of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban; and the defeat of German fascism, Japanese militarism, Soviet communism and suicidal jihadism. Yet the U.S. military does more than wage wars. Even as SEAL Team Six finished off bin Laden, other U.S. forces were nurturing a fragile peace in Iraq, rebuilding Afghanistan, providing emergency care in Peru, assisting Japan after the killer earthquake and tsunami, and conducting medical outreach in Malawi. The ship that buried bin Laden – USS Carl Vinson – led post-quake relief efforts in Haiti a year earlier.
Shanksville, Pa. | The war on terror actually began on Flight 93, when its 40 passengers and crew mounted a heroic effort to wrest control of the doomed plane. A memorial to their sacrifice is under construction in southwest Pennsylvania. As the 9/11 Commission concluded, the objective of Flight 93's hijackers was to attack "symbols of the American republic: the Capitol or the White House," but they were "defeated by the alerted, unarmed passengers." As Paul Greengrass, director of "United 93," observes, "they were the first people to inhabit the post-9/11 world."
Because of 9/11, America's history is split in two. There is the pre-9/11 era, a decade when war seemed unthinkable. And there is the post-9/11 era, a time of war.
Washington | As in the Cold War, when administrations of both parties followed the same roadmap in confronting the Soviet threat, there is remarkable continuity between administrations on post-9/11 policy. President Barack Obama retained key members of Bush's national-security team, modeled his Afghanistan surge after Bush's Iraq surge, expanded the drone war, continues helping Afghans build institutions to resist jihadism, has embraced Bush's freedom agenda for the Middle East, and as evidenced by operations in Yemen and Pakistan, continues to strike terror targets with or without U.N. permission.
The Obama administration is also relying on military commissions set up by the Bush administration to try 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and other al-Qaida operatives. It has kept in place or expanded Bush's post-9/11 intelligence orders, and continues to employ Bush's indefinite-detention orders.
Likewise, despite all the heated rhetoric, Democrat- and Republican-controlled Congresses have blocked the movement of Gitmo detainees into the United States, extended the PATRIOT Act, invested hundreds of billions for homeland security, and appropriated $1.3 trillion for wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and other fronts in the global war on terror.
At home | Not only did 9/11 make those distracting news tickers a permanent part of our TV screens, but it also spawned an entire genre of shows centered on global terrorism: "The Unit," "24," "Threat Matrix" and "E-Ring" all focused on counterterrorism, while 9/11 heavily influenced the plotlines of "The West Wing," "CSI:NY" and "Rescue Me."
On the big screen, "World Trade Center," "United 93," "Munich," "The Kingdom" and "Fahrenheit 9/11" were among the films that wrestled with the attacks and their consequences. Likewise, the latest entry in the Batman franchise – with its terrorist villains, unappreciated hero, complicated moral dilemmas and grim remedies – seems a thinly-veiled parable for the post-9/11 world.
At Sea | USS New York, with 15,000 pounds of steel from Ground Zero forged into its hull and "Never Forget" as its motto, was put to sea in 2009. USS Arlington, honoring the Pentagon, launched in 2010. USS Somerset, named for the county where Flight 93 went down, will soon join them.
Europe | Al-Qaida inspired the March 2004 attacks against Spain's commuter trains, which killed 191 people, wounded 1,841 and toppled the Spanish government. Similar bombings in Britain killed 52 and injured 700 in July 2005.
The al-Qaida onslaught drew NATO into Afghanistan, where the alliance is engaged in its largest, longest combat operation ever – 3,000 miles away from its Brussels headquarters. .
Djibouti | U.S. military personnel began arriving in Djibouti in 2003. A perfect perch for responding to terror threats in Africa and the Arabian peninsula, it hosts some 2,000 U.S. troops. .
Somalia | Lawless Somalia is an ideal environment for al-Qaida and its kindred movements. U.S. forces have struck terror targets there repeatedly since 9/11, including special-ops assaults in 2009, missile salvos in 2008, airstrikes and naval attacks in 2007, and backing Ethiopia's invasion in 2006..
Yemen | Yemen may be the epicenter of al-Qaida activity today. The Yemeni branch of al-Qaida has been implicated in the 2010 parcel-bomb plot, the 2009 attempt to destroy Northwest 253, and prison breaks and attacks on Western embassy targets. In addition, Army psychiatrist Nidal Hasan, who killed 13 people during a 2009 shooting rampage at Fort Hood, routinely communicated with al-Qaida elements in Yemen..
Saudi Arabia | Fifteen of the 19 hijackers behind 9/11 were from Saudi Arabia. So was bin Laden, who said in 1996 that the central aim of his global guerrilla war was "to expel the occupying enemy from the country of the two holy places," better known as Saudi Arabia.
After U.S. troops ejected Iraq's army from Kuwait in 1990, they stayed in Saudi Arabia to protect Saudi oil fields from Saddam's army. That galvanized al-Qaida, which carried out the 9/11 attacks that triggered America's war on terror.
By the end of August 2003, the United States had withdrawn its forces from Saudi Arabia. Yet it continues to play a role there, assisting with the creation of a 35,000-strong security force to protect Saudi oil facilities, the largest of which was targeted in a failed al-Qaida attack in 2006.
Iraq | Hussein's Iraq was not connected to the 9/11 attacks, but it was connected to Abu Musab Zarqawi, the bin Laden lieutenant who ignited Iraq's postwar civil war. According to British officials, Zarqawi traveled to Iraq in May 2002, met "senior Iraqis" and established a presence in Iraq six months before the U.S.-led invasion.
What Hussein failed to grasp in such risky dealings was that 9/11 had changed the very DNA of U.S. national-security policy. Was deterrence possible? Was containment viable? Was giving Baghdad the benefit of the doubt responsible? The Bush administration's answers were "no," leading to a war that toppled Saddam's regime and liberated 24 million Iraqis, followed by a postwar war that claimed more than 4,450 Americans.
Hussein's associations, behavior and record with weapons of mass destruction fueled a presumption of guilt that, when mixed with America's sense of vulnerability after 9/11, created a deadly combination. This is perhaps the most fundamental way 9/11 is linked to Hussein's Iraq: the latter did not perpetrate the former, but the former taught Washington a lesson about the danger of failing to confront threats before they are fully formed.
Iran | Defectors from Iran's intelligence service recently testified in federal court that Iran had foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks. Although the 9/11 Commission concluded that there is "strong evidence ... Iran facilitated the transit of al-Qaida members into and out of Afghanistan before 9/11," the panel found no evidence that Tehran was aware of the planning for 9/11.
What we do know is that the post-9/11 wars on Iran's borders had the effect of erasing Iran's main regional rivals, that Iranian-built bombs and Iranian-backed fighters have killed Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq, and that Iran is building a nuclear arsenal capable of doing far worse.
Central Asia | Unknown to most Americans before 9/11, the so-called Stans of Central Asia have become increasingly critical of the war effort, serving as supply arteries into Afghanistan. Even Russia, America's Cold War enemy, has opened its territory to a steady stream of NATO cargo bound for Afghanistan.
Afghanistan | It took just weeks for the United States to topple the medieval Taliban regime and smash al-Qaida's headquarters. A decade later, Afghanistan is free from the Taliban's reign, but still bleeding America.
Pakistan Since 9/11, there has been a debate over the dysfunctional Pakistani government, with one side arguing that Islamabad is doing its best to rein in its unwieldy intelligence service and military, and the other countering that Islamabad is complicit in what its intelligence operatives do – and what its military won't do. SEAL Team Six settled that debate. Elements of Pakistan's government had to know that the most wanted man on earth was living next door.
The bin Laden takedown is largely a symbol, underscoring America's resolve, resilience and reach. But just as the elimination of Yamamoto didn't end World War II, bin Laden's death doesn't end the war on terror – bin Laden is dead, but "bin Ladenism" is not.
India | A jihadist group affiliated with al-Qaida laid siege to Mumbai in November 2008, killing 183 people, including six Americans.
Indonesia | Al-Qaida claimed responsibility for the 2002 Bali bombings, which killed some 200 people.
Philippines | Khalid Sheik Mohammed and Ramzi Yousef, the man behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, were based in the Philippines in the 1990s. After 9/11, U.S. special-ops units began assisting the Philippine army in its fight against al-Qaida affiliates. The result has been one of the most successful battles in the war on terror.
Arlington, Va. | Arlington and other cemeteries hold more than 6,000 U.S. troops who have died waging "the wars of 9/11." The fallen are moms and dads, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, husbands and wives, sweethearts and buddies – and heroes.
Alan W. Dowd is a contributing editor for The American Legion Magazine.