Twenty Years and Lingering Fears: 9/11’s Lasting Impacts

This September was the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. For Tufts students, it was a reminder of the legacy of 9/11 and how the event has influenced American society despite many of them being too young to remember the event. Tufts students, Americans, and people around the globe continue to be affected by the policy changes, xenophobia, and discourse surrounding terrorism that was created as a result of 9/11. 

The US’ foreign policy measures created after 9/11 still influence the way many Americans think about Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran as foreign threats, as well as the way that they perceive Muslims and Arab people in general. A poll by The Associated Press Center for Public Affairs Research conducted ahead of the 9/11 anniversary in August 2021 found that 53 percent of Americans have unfavorable views toward Islam, compared with 42 percent who have favorable ones. 

“I’m always a little weary being a hijabi in certain spaces because people will assume certain things or come up to me and ask strange questions,” said junior Warisha Siddiqui. “I’ve had people come up to me  feeling worried [saying] we’re sorry about wearing the hijab like I was forced to do it, when that’s not the case. I think that’s a product of Islamophobia and the perceptions of hijab.”

While Siddiqui experiences the impacts of 9/11 today, she recounts how 9/11 influenced her youth as well. “During the early stages [post-]9/11, I wasn’t fully aware, but I remember generally seeing signs [of the impact] in my house, like my parents not letting us go out to play,” she said. “I definitely think it had a profound impact on my life. I never forgot. I distinctly remember every 9/11. We wouldn’t do any work. Every single class, whether it be math or social studies, we would just talk about it.”

The racialization of Islam has impacted individuals of Arab descent as well. Junior Paolo Padova grew up half white and half Arab with Christian Arab heritage. Despite not being Muslim, 9/11 has impacted how his family walks through life in America. 

“On account of living in NYC after 9/11, my mom stopped speaking Arabic to [me and my sister], so I think for that reason it’s been more difficult for me to learn my own language… It took my mom a long time to be able to tell people she’s Palestinian out of fear of backlash. In fact, it was only when I got to college that she started being vocal about that part of her identity,” Padova said.

Racism and xenophobia after 9/11 resulted in a staunch increase in deportations of immigrants in the US, increasing nearly 50 percent since 9/11. The Bush Administration created the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security, and with these was able to bolster national security measures that often infringed on the civil liberties of Muslim and Arab people. 

“Islamophobia in the US did not start with 9/11,” said political science professor Debora Schildkraut. “But 9/11 certainly led the public to support attempts to restrict the rights and opportunities of Muslim Americans. It also sustained discrimination and violence against people who were perceived to be Muslim, even if they were not,” she said.

Post-9/11 politics led to the increased surveillance of Muslim people. The USA PATRIOT Act, signed into law shortly after the attacks, allowed for increased surveillance and wiretapping. Civil rights groups have claimed the act violates American citizens’ constitutional rights and allows the government to spy on them without due process. Recent political measures, such as Counter Violence Extremism programs, play into the racialization of Islam as well, stating that  “wearing traditional Islamic clothing” and “growing a beard” are indicators of radicalization, when radicalization does not have key indicators or paths. “9/11 and the War on Terror have shown that expanding the surveillance state does not make people safer and is consistently used against people of color,” said Padova. “Instead, the basis of safety is solidarity between marginalized communities.” 

For Siddiqui, increased surveillance and distrust targeted at Muslim people is the norm. “When people describe what a pre-9/11 world was, it doesn’t mean anything to [me]. I’ve only ever experienced a world with [the] increased security of having to be patted down every time I go to the airport and the extra check on my luggage,” she said. 

Immediately following 9/11, President George W. Bush launched the War on Terror, which would begin with an invasion of Afghanistan. Tufts international relations professor Malik Mufti said, “there is no question that both [the Afghanistan and Iraq] Wars have come generally to be seen as failures.” Despite this, 9/11 has been the basis for other U.S. military interventions in the Middle East. The strategies are changing, and there is now more emphasis on suppressing movements before they start. “[There is more of a] focus on counter-insurgency than terrorism since the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq because of the absence of major Middle East-based terrorist operations in the US since 9/11,” Mufti continued.

Siddiqui worked at the Atlantic Council, an international affairs think tank, this summer. “[For] all forms of US military intervention, [my workplace] was thoroughly against them. So I had interesting conversations about the disproportionate response in Afghanistan and how more troops aren’t going to solve the issue,” she said. “I was shocked [about] how much money was spent on counter-terrorism and how most of it went to military operations in Muslim majority nations. I didn’t think the way we were spending our money helped [anyone].”

Twenty years later, issues of intervention, the US’ role in the region, and counter-terrorism policy persist. Conversations about the US’ role in the Middle East resurfaced in August when President Joe Biden withdrew troops from the region. Siddiqui said, “I think we’ve forgotten what 9/11 was and how we use it to justify what the US does in the Middle East for the past 20 years and that’s really sad.”