The lasting impact of U.S. decisions in the aftermath of 9/11

By Mary Zerkel

Twenty years ago, on Sept. 11, 2001, the world was shocked at the coordinated attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, resulting in the deaths of nearly 3,000 people.  

Expressions of sympathy and grief came from throughout the world. But rather than use the moment to forge global cooperation, the United States embarked on a disastrous course driven by narratives of fear and retribution. Despite strong opposition and the largest global demonstration in history, the attacks of 9/11 and Islamophobic narratives were used to justify the “war on terror,” wars for oil and hegemony, and curtailment of civil liberties. 

As the years dragged on, the wars, militarization, surveillance, and suppression of dissent that have been key to the “war on terror” have become so normalized as to be almost invisible.

Those who are old enough to remember the days before 9/11 recall when we used to be able to see our loved ones off at the airport gate, when we didn’t refer to the U.S. as the “homeland,” and when the president needed Congress to approve declarations of war. 

Looking at a timeline that runs from Sept. 11, 2001, through the invasion of Iraq on March 20, 2003, we can see how the decisions made in those short 18 months set the stage for the militarism and destruction that continues to this day. 

Endless war and militarization

"Eyes Wide Open" exhibit in Columbus, Ohio. Photo: Marq Anderson

Within the first week after the attacks, the “Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists” (AUMF) was passed by the United States Congress, giving the President essentially a “blank check” to wage war without congressional debate. This policy paved the way for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and 20 years later, that authority has been interpreted broadly. The full list of actors the U.S. military is fighting—or believes itself authorized to fight—is classified. Under the AUMF the US military has deployed to Afghanistan, the Philippines, Georgia, Yemen, Djibouti, Kenya, Ethiopia, Iraq, and Somalia.   

The advancement of drone technology meant that many of those countries are being aerially bombed. And while there are far fewer U.S. deaths or injuries, civilian casualties remain high. This has helped to invisibilize the endless wars for the U.S. public, even though a quarter of them have never experienced the U.S. in peacetime. Generations of Afghans and Iraqis have also grown up not knowing a time without war. In addition to the trauma of war, there have been hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties, though the true number may never be known and there are millions of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) having fled the violence.  

President Biden has announced that he will end the U.S. combat mission in Iraq by the end of 2021, and troops have recently been fully withdrawn from Afghanistan. But the lives of Afghans and Iraqis will never be the same. The human toll is incalculable.

Erosion of civil liberties and surveillance 

Almost immediately after the 9/11 attacks, policies are enacted that erode the civil rights of targeted communities, as the U.S. begins detaining Muslim and Arab men without charges. This criminalization of entire communities continued. That includes the incarceration of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay prison, where those incarcerated can be held indefinitely without trial and are tortured; Islamic charities charged with material support of “terrorist groups;” and the passage of The Patriot Act.

The PATRIOT Act—passed just six weeks after the attacks--vastly expanded government authority to spy on its own citizens. The result is another example of unchecked power—this time to search through an individual’s internet searches, medical histories, bookstore purchases, financial records, location records, social media, etc.

As the “war on terror” moved into its second decade, targeted surveillance became even more hidden and sophisticated. The U.S. created Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programs, which enlist trusted community members such as teachers, imams, and mental health workers to help identify people who “might become radicalized,” based upon specious indicators such as outwardly religious clothing, depression, unemployment, or disagreement with western foreign policy.  All of this has left a heavy toll on Muslim communities who must worry that constitutionally protected behavior such as going to the mosque, wearing hijab, or participating in a protest might be construed as “radicalism,” bringing law enforcement to their door. 

Immigration and “the Homeland”

Less than a month after the attacks President Bush announced the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). By November of the following year DHS had officially consolidated 22 U.S. executive branch organizations related to "homeland security" into a single cabinet agency.  The term “homeland” was not commonplace in the U.S. at the time and eerily evoked an ethnocentric concept of nationhood. 

The Department of Homeland Security now operates through anti-terrorism measures, border security, immigration and customs, cyber security, and disaster prevention and management.   In practice, DHS has become the agency administering some of the most harmful policies over the last two decades through Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), implicated in separating children from families, denying asylum seekers entry into the country, and enforcing the Muslim ban. A lesser-known program was the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), program in 2002, which was an immigration registry for all men, ages 16 and older, who were citizens of 24 Arab and Muslim countries and North Korea. Over 85,000 registered with NSEERS, which struck fear within communities and although not one threat to national security or terrorist is identified, over 13,000 were deported on minor visa violations.

During the Obama, Trump, and now Biden administrations, DHS has given grants to local law enforcement and community groups to administer the damaging Countering Violent Extremism programs

Narratives of fear and anti-Muslim racism 

Young people take part in an action in Washington, D.C., calling on policymakers to divest from militarism and invest in our communities. Photo: Bryan Vana/AFSC

Looking through the policy decisions made in the aftermath of 9/11, it is clear that an enduring feature of the “war on terror” are the fear-based narratives that equate all Muslims with terrorists. Historically, the European or “Western” world has viewed Asian, Black, and other “non-Western” people through a lens that paints them as monolithic and dangerous, among other things. The racially and ethnically diverse 1.9  billion Muslims worldwide are viewed through the 9/11 lens as all inherently violent—leading to the racialization of followers of a religion. Muslims and people who are perceived to be Muslim because of the way they look or dress are viewed as national security threats and targeted by both government policies and racist harassment and violence. 

Under the Trump administration, the Muslim community was demonized through both words and racist policies such as the Muslim ban. Racist violence against Muslims has been on the rise in recent years, with incidents ranging from mass shootings to forced removal of hijab to verbal harassment.  

Resistance across the U.S. and around the world

While bearing the heavy weight of the fear-based decisions made by the U.S. and the “war on terror,” impacted communities have been leading resistance movements for decades. On Oct. 11, 2001 the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) condemned the invasion of Afghanistan. Today the young people of the Afghan Peace Volunteers bravely stand up for food security and against drones, and Muslim-led resistance to surveillance has had numerous victories across the United States. 

Changing entrenched policies of war and militarism is no easy task, and AFSC and partners are working to connect counter damaging narratives, address harms, and build true international solidarity around sustainable peace and shared wellbeing.  


  • International Witness campaign - AFSC has partnered with CAGE/UK and others around the world to explore the two decades of “the war on terror,” while promoting solidarity, justice, and dialog.
  • Teaching the Legacy of 9/11 – AFSC has created a new 50-minute adaptable Grade 1-12 curriculum aligned to Common Core that addresses the lasting impact of 9/11 on international and national policies, communities, and the daily lives of individuals.




  • September 11: Planes flown into The World Trade Center Towers and The Pentagon.
  • September 14: The “Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists” is passed by the United States Congress, authorizing use of United States Armed Forces against those responsible for September 11 attacks, and any "associated forces.”
  • September 20: In an address to a joint session of Congress and the American people, U.S. President George W. Bush declares a "War on Terror".
  • September 21: Up to  20,000 people demonstrate in Washington, D.C.,denouncing the impending invasion of Afghanistan. 
  • October:  Attorney General John Ashcroft orders a dragnet sweep of 1,147 Arab and Muslim men between the ages of 18-35  to be detained without charges. 
  • October 7: The war in Afghanistan, “Operation Enduring Freedom” begins with the invasion of Afghanistan. 
  • October 8: President Bush announces the establishment of the Office of Homeland Security to coordinate "homeland security" efforts.
  • October 11: The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), condemns  the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, stating that "America ... has launched a vast aggression on our country".
  • October 20: The New York Times reports that there is no evidence that the 830 people in custody in 9/11 investigation is  a conspirator in 9/11 attacks.
  • October 21: The Afghan civilian casualty rate peaks with the bombing of a hospital and mosque in Herat. Approximately 100 bodies are found among the wreckage.   
  • October 26: Congress passes the Patriot Act which allows search and electronic surveillance powers for federal agencies while investigating persons suspected of terrorism.
  • October 31: Ashcroft announces the creation of a “Foreign Terrorist Tracking Force,” which institutionalized mass preventive detention of noncitizens.
  • November: U.S. Attorney General Ashcroft directive to interview 5000 Arab and Muslim men from 18-35, who have entered the US after January 2000 from a country having “terrorist activity.”
  • November 8: With the number of detainees at 1,182, the Justice Department announces it will no longer issue a running tally of the number of people detained in 9/11-related sweeps. 
  • November 13: President Bush authorizes military tribunals to try suspected terrorists.  Anyone held under the Military Order can be detained indefinitely without charge or trial.


  • January: Department of Justice puts Islamic charities on list of organizations giving “material support” to terrorist organizations. Anyone who has contributed can be charged with a crime.
  • January 9: The White House declares that Guantanamo detainees are “enemy combatants” and not entitled to the protections afforded prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions.
  • January 11: First group of 20 detainees arrives at Guantanamo Bay’s Camp X-Ray.
  • April 20: 75,000 people march in Washington, D.C. against U.S. militarism and foreign policy in the largest peace protest  since the war began the previous fall.
  • May 3: Poll finds that a majority of Americans, post-9/11, would give up some civil liberties in the name of greater security.
  • July 1: 48 people at a wedding party in Afghanistan are killed, and a further 117 injured in a US bombing raid. The victims include many women and children. 
  • July 3: President Bush expresses "deep condolences for the loss of human life,” for the bombing of the wedding party on July 1.
  • October 16: The Iraq Resolution is enacted after being passed by the United States Congress, authorizing military action against Iraq.
  • November: The Department of Justice  announces National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), an immigration registry for all men, ages 16 and older, who are citizens of 24 Arab and Muslim countries and North Korea. Over 85,000 register with NSEERS.  Not one threat to national security or terrorist is identified but over 13,00 are deported on minor visa violations.
  • November 25: Bush signs the Homeland Security Act of 2002, intended to consolidate 22 U.S. executive branch organizations related to "homeland security" into a single cabinet agency.


  • January 3- April 12: Anti-war groups across the world organize public protests against war with Iraq. About 36 million people across the globe take part in almost 3,000 protests.
  • February 5: Colin Powell addresses the United Nations Security Council, stating categorically that Saddam Hussein is working to obtain key components to produce nuclear weapons.
  • February 15: A globally coordinated day of protests in more than 600 cities expresses opposition to the Iraq War. It is reported as "the largest protest event in human history.”  
  • March 11: A federal appeals court rules that the 650 Guantanamo detainees have no legal rights in the United States and may not ask courts to review their detentions.
  • March 18: Department of Homeland Security announces “Operation Liberty Shield,” requiring automatic detention of asylum seekers from 34 countries.
  • March 20: The Iraq War begins with the Invasion of Iraq. President George W. Bush refers to it as "the central front in the War on Terror.”

*Excerpt of “A Thing of Great Power and Size has Gone Missing” (2018), an art installation by Mary Zerkel, Kevin Kaempf, and Michael Thomas (Lucky Pierre).