Post-9/11 optimism didn’t last

World affairs were reordered abruptly on Sept. 11, 2001. It was an opportunity for the world to come together in unity against terrorism. That rare moment has passed.


World News

September 10, 2021 - 2:18 PM

An American flag flies outside the Las Cruces Fire Department, 201 E. Picacho Ave., on Friday, Sept. 11, 2020, in honor of the lives lost in the attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. Courtesy photo

In the ghastly rubble of ground zero’s fallen towers 20 years ago, Hour Zero arrived, a chance to start anew. 

World affairs reordered abruptly on that morning of blue skies, black ash, fire and death. 

In Iran, chants of “death to America” quickly gave way to candlelight vigils to mourn the American dead. Vladimir Putin weighed in with substantive help as the U.S. prepared to go to war in Russia’s region of influence.

Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, a murderous dictator with a poetic streak, spoke of the “human duty” to be with Americans after “these horrifying and awesome events, which are bound to awaken human conscience.” 

From the first terrible moments, America’s longstanding allies were joined by longtime enemies in that singularly galvanizing instant. No nation with global standing was cheering the stateless terrorists vowing to conquer capitalism and democracy. How rare is that?

Too rare to last, it turned out. 


Civilizations have their allegories for rebirth in times of devastation. A global favorite is that of the phoenix, a magical and magnificent bird, rising from ashes. In the hellscape of Germany at the end of World War II, it was the concept of Hour Zero, or Stunde Null, that offered the opportunity to start anew. 

For the U.S., the zero hour of Sept. 11, 2001, meant a chance to reshape its place in the post-Cold War world from a high perch of influence and goodwill as it entered the new millennium. This was only a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union left America with both the moral authority and the financial and military muscle to be unquestionably the lone superpower. 

Those advantages were soon squandered. Instead of a new order, 9/11 fueled 20 years of war abroad. In the U.S., it gave rise to the angry, aggrieved, self-proclaimed patriot, and heightened surveillance and suspicion in the name of common defense. 

It opened an era of deference to the armed forces as lawmakers pulled back on oversight and let presidents give primacy to the military over law enforcement in the fight against terrorism. And it sparked anti-immigrant sentiment, primarily directed at Muslim countries, that lingers today. 

A war of necessity — in the eyes of most of the world — in Afghanistan was followed two years later by a war of choice as the U.S. invaded Iraq on false claims that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction. President George W. Bush labeled Iran, Iraq and North Korea an “axis of evil.”

Thus opened the deep, deadly mineshaft of “forever wars.” There were convulsions throughout the Middle East, and U.S. foreign policy — for half a century a force for ballast — instead gave way to a head-snapping change in approaches in foreign policy from Bush to Obama to Trump. With that came waning trust in America’s leadership and reliability.

Other parts of the world were not immune. Far-right populist movements coursed through Europe. Britain voted to break away from the European Union. And China steadily ascended in the global pecking order. 

President Joe Biden is trying to restore trust in the belief of a steady hand from the U.S. but there is no easy path. He is ending war, but what comes next?

In Afghanistan in August, the Taliban seized control with menacing swiftness as the Afghan government and security forces that the United States and its allies had spent two decades trying to build collapsed. No steady hand was evident from the U.S. in the harried, disorganized evacuation of Afghans desperately trying to flee the country in the first weeks of the Taliban’s re-established rule. 

Allies whose troops had fought and died in the U.S-led war in Afghanistan expressed dismay at Biden’s management of the U.S. withdrawal, under a deal President Donald Trump had struck with the Taliban.