Everyone alive during 9/11 knows where they were when they heard about the attacks on the Twin Towers, and everyone has seen the iconic photo of the plane hitting the North Tower.
Sixteen years later, 9/11 still has a profound impact on America and its political landscape. And, while some of these impacts were immediate and obvious, others were long-term and subtle.
It’s much easier to photograph a burning building than it is to photograph a change in the way a country thinks.
These twenty five seldom-seen pictures measure 9/11’s impact on America, from the initial devastation to the social and political changes that followed.
The initial photos of 9/11 still shock us, even after sixteen years, because of their banality. Away from the blast site, people go about their day-to-day business, unaware of the tragedy happening behind them. Some of the day’s most striking shots were captured by amateur photographers, not attempting to document anything more than an ordinary day.
In the days after the tragedy, as the dust settled on New York City and the realization of the death toll settled onto its people, the predominant mood was grief and confusion. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, the photographs capture shock and solidarity, and the barely-suppressed fear that the attacks were not over.
According to people living in New York at the time of the attacks, the city essentially “turned into police state,” with police officers and military standing around with guns and people having to go through checkpoints to get anywhere.
For the first few days, while there was still hope that first responders would find more survivors, the mood remained tentatively hopeful. But in the weeks after the attack, when the hope was lost, the predominant mood was profound sadness, as the families of the victims came to realize that their loved ones might not be coming back.
The attacks also left a psychological impact on those living in the city, even those far from the site. PTSD rates went up measurably in the two years following the attacks, and, even today, many New Yorkers have difficult and tragic memories of the event. Many who lived in New York during the attacks also report that the attacks made them far from spontaneous in the own live, as they had the feeling that everything might break down at any moment.
The direct death toll of the attacks is still rising, as people die from health causes related to the event. Sixteen years after the attacks, over 1,000 people are estimated to have died from health causes triggered by the attacks, including cancers linked to carcinogenic dust from the falling towers. It’s estimated that by 2020, more people will have died from health fallout from the attacks than the attacks themselves.
The hardest-hit by these health problems are the first responders themselves. This August, first-responder Robert Alexander died from a brain tumor thought to be caused by fallout from 9/11. This happened just nine months after his father, also a first-responder, passed away from similar causes. Cancers, respiratory problems, and mental health disorders are the number-one culprits for former first-responders.
Many victims of the attacks were much less obvious. America’s approximately 3.3 million Muslim citizens felt the backlash, as furious Americans took out their anger on their fellow citizens. There were 481 anti-Muslim hate crimes in America in 2001, including assaults, destruction of property and even firebombing. Sikh men were also often targeted, as many took their turbans to be a symbol of Islamd. Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh man mistaken for a Muslim, was killed in Arizona four days after the attacks.
Even beyond the targeted attacks, Muslims Americans were faced with suspicion and distrust in their everyday lives. Jenan Matari, co-founder of MissMuslim, told the Huffington Post about her experiences living in New York after the attacks: “Every day there was that struggle of wanting to be a normal American kid, but I was reminded constantly that I had to be ‘better than average’ or ‘more behave’ than my friends because of my race and religion.”
Tensions came to a head after the announcement of the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque,” a Muslim community center that was to be built several blocks away from the World Trade Center site. The project roused public outrage and widespread protests, and a majority of Americans opposed it, inciting protests at the building site and at mosques across the States.
One of the most profound impacts of 9/11 was the American government’s attitude towards immigration. While President Bush had been toying with the idea of a temporary work visa program before the attacks, he “put the idea of a temporary worker program on hold and concentrated on border security.” Today, immigration is seen chiefly as a security issue, and the number of deportations per year have doubled since the attack.
This change in policy is partly because of a change in enforcement. In 2002, the Bush administration consolidated the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the U.S. Customs Service into the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which focuses far more on deportations than its predecessors had.
One of the places this increased security is most obvious is at the airports, where full-body scans, pat-downs, and banned drinks are now de rigueur. These duties are now the responsibility of the Transportation Security Administration, a governmental branch developed after 9/11 to look after potential “flight risks.”
Again, the impact of these new rules is most obvious for Americans of Middle-Eastern descent, who are often caught up on “no-fly lists” and stopped and “randomly searched” in airports. The hassling, rudeness and even threats that Muslim-Americans (and those who are thought to be Muslim Americans) face are so well-documented that the phenomenon has a name — “flying while Muslim.”
This concern about security threats also spurred the creation of “black sites,” or CIA-operated military sites that were responsible for projects unacknowledged by the government. At many of these sites, prisoners who were suspected of terrorism were subject to “enhanced interrogation techniques,” physical and psychological torture.
The fear created by the 9/11 attacks has made the use of torture acceptable not just to the American government but to members of the public. As of 2015, a slight majority of Americans believed that torture was “always or sometimes” justified when dealing with suspected terrorists, and 53% of Americans believe that torture leads to important information that would be impossible to get by other means.
These sites are veiled in secrecy and, even now, we don’t know all the detainees or even all the locations of the sites. And, while President Obama promised to close down Guantanamo Bay (one of the most notorious of these sites), it remains open to this day, and current president Trump has vowed to incarcerate more prisoners. The current number of “black site prisoners” remains unknown.
Perhaps the biggest impact of 9/11 was the change to America’s political climate and its understanding of itself. The event shocked America to its core, and transformed the political climate to what many cultural critics called a “culture of fear.” In his book The Culture of Fear, academic Barry Glassner remarks, “Part of what I find interesting about this is that overall most Americans live in what is arguably the safest time and place in human history, and yet fear levels are high.”
As of 2016, terrorist attacks were still America’s number two fear, right after government corruption. Indeed, Americans are more afraid of terrorist attacks than they were directly after 9/11. While terrorism has killed far fewer people in America than guns, the catastrophic, unpredictable nature of the attacks makes it difficult for people to think about rationally.
The attacks even changed the English language, introducing the world to the phrase “war on terror,” “Axis of Evil,” “weapons of mass destruction,” and “enhanced interrogation techniques.” When the French refused to support the war in Iraq and Americans subsequently distanced themselves from all things French, we also gained the term, “freedom fries.”
They have also changed our understanding of what “war” means. The “War on Terror,” the rhetorical framing of the military operations against terrorism by the Bush government, redefined what “war” meant, plunging the United States into a shadowy state of perma-war with no clear boundaries between sides and no real battlefield. The way the “War on Terror” has been conducted has led to widespread anger against the United States, especially in the Middle East.
Sixteen years after the attack on the World Trade Center, the echoes of September 11th still ring out through government policy, popular opinion, and the experiences of those who were victims of it, whether directly or through the tide of popular opinion moving against people.
When we think about the impact 9/11, we think most about the impact on the victims and their families. But many of the disasters’ impacts are far more subtle, lingering in the nation’s bloodstream for years after the attacks, barely-considered. These photos show a side of 9/11 that’s less reported-on, less talked-about, and less-considered. And if we truly want to “never forget” 9/11, we have to be prepared to think about all of the facets of it.