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What If 9/11 Never Happened?

A counterhistory.

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T here are days in New York—surprisingly many of them, all things considered—when it’s almost possible to forget that we are living in an age of terror. And then there are days, like last Thursday with its headlines out of London, when that grim reality rises up and slaps us hard upside the head. When we’re reminded that there really are ideological-cum-religious fanatics intent on slaughtering us in large numbers. When we realize that these zealots aren’t merely crazy but determined and ingenious. When we’re forced to admit that we are, deep down, more scared than we ever let on.

9/11 Five Years Later

It is almost five years since that fear was imposed on us and the age of terror began in earnest. From the moment the Twin Towers fell, 9/11 was seen as a watershed, a historical turning point of grand and irreversible proportions. With the acrid smoke still swirling above ground zero, the mantras repeated constantly were that 9/11 had “changed everything”—that “nothing would ever be the same.”

By now we see those mantras for what they were: natural, perhaps inevitable, exaggerations in the face of gargantuan trauma. So much about how we live our lives today remains the same as it ever was. And yet, at the same time, we all know (or think we know) that vast changes have in fact been spawned by 9/11—political, cultural, and sociological; intellectual, emotional, and psychological—in New York, throughout America, and around the world. The question is precisely what they are.

As a way of marking the fifth anniversary of 9/11, we’ve attempted to provide an answer—or, rather, many answers. But we’ve done so in a roundabout manner: by asking an assortment of big thinkers and public figures to address the question, What if 9/11 never happened? Now, let’s be clear, we’re well aware that the dangers of counterfactual speculation (If Bobby Kennedy had never been shot, then Nixon would never have been elected! So no Watergate! No Carter! No Reagan! Etc., etc., etc.) are almost as grave as those of unbridled futurism. But we also see the virtues of an approach that appeals both to left-brain analytics and right-brain imagination—and that, in the process, tends to uproot subterranean assumptions and challenge conventional wisdom.

The most glaring item in the latter category (at least on the left) is the canard that, if not for 9/11, the United States would not be a country at war. But as a number of the voices in the pages that follow argue convincingly, a clash between the West and the forces of jihadism—and, in particular, between America and Al Qaeda—was inevitable. Osama bin Laden’s campaign against the U.S. had been under way for nearly a decade; the only question was when, not whether, it would land upon these shores. As Andrew Sullivan suggests in his alternative-present blog, America should perhaps consider itself lucky that 9/11 took place when it did (thus giving the country an early warning of the battle ahead) and that it wasn’t worse. In a parallel history that avoids easy morals, he draws a path that leads us to an even more dire version of where we are today: in the midst of a long twilight struggle against a lethal enemy.

Without 9/11, would the London plot have been foiled? Without 9/11, would there have been an Iraq war? Without the Iraq war, would there have been a London plot?

Yet if a war against Islamofascism was unavoidable, the same can’t be said of the other war in which we’re currently, tragically, ensnared. Although many of the neocons in George W. Bush’s administration had long nurtured fantasies of invading Iraq, 9/11 was the sine qua non for the transformation of those dreams into policy. Without the specter of the gruesome atrocity at the World Trade Center, Bush would likely have been unable to induce either Tony Blair or Colin Powell to support him and his doctrine of preemption—and without the complicity of those two, his designs on Baghdad would almost certainly have been stalled in their tracks.

As with Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam, history is sure to designate Iraq as the defining feature of Bush’s presidency. But unlike with LBJ—who, if it weren’t for the conflict in Southeast Asia, would be remembered for civil rights and the Great Society—it’s difficult to conceive of what Bush’s legacy would be in the absence of 9/11 and its fallout. Rampant profligacy? Record deficits? Slavish fealty to the rich? Quite possibly, all three. Or perhaps, as historian Douglas Brinkley offers , Bush would have defined his administration by taking up the challenge presented by another disaster, Hurricane Katrina: “Rather than standing on the rubble at ground zero with his bullhorn,” Brinkley says, “Bush would best be known for standing on some waterlogged roof in the Ninth Ward.” Or perhaps he would have gone down to defeat in 2004, a 9/11-free election centering on domestic affairs, in which the Democratic candidate, therefore, wouldn’t have been John Kerry but John Edwards or Dick Gephardt—or Al Gore.

Erase 9/11 and the local political scene would be similarly transfigured. Rudy Giuliani’s bank account would be much diminished—and his presidential prospects would be nonexistent. Mark Green might be our mayor. (Would we all be smoking in bars again? Would Wall Street have been taxed into oblivion?) Ray Kelly would be on nobody’s short list of future occupants of Gracie Mansion. Joe Lieberman—a miserable, deluded putz who also happens to be a casualty of the newly virulent partisanship ushered in by 9/11—would probably be the Democratic nominee for Senate in Connecticut, as opposed to a poster boy for sour grapes.

Politics isn’t everything, of course. It’s often said that 9/11 brought to a close the great boom that unfurled in the second half of the nineties. Our memories tell us that, prior to that day, we lived in a kind of economic nirvana, incited by the efflorescence of Silicon Valley and propelled by the soaring stock market. But in truth, the boom (or, if you like, the bubble) was already over by the time the planes hit the towers. The Dow peaked in January 2000, and the NASDAQ began its epic crash two months later; by summer 2001, unemployment was rising and the overall economy had stalled. A recession was in the offing, 9/11 or no.

What wasn’t necessarily in the cards, however, was an end to the broader aura that the bubble economy fueled—the sense that, as the author Bruce Sterling put it at the time, we were living through a “new Belle Epoque.” Underlying that perception was a certain all-purpose optimism about technology, progress, and the future. Sans 9/11, maybe such sentiments would have proved durable. Maybe Google and the Web 2.0 generation would have been seen as the second phase of the high-tech long boom. But after 9/11, no one talks of long booms anymore. Belles Epoques may be capable of surviving recessions, but wars have a way of claiming national optimism among their many casualties.

What of New York City? Instinctively, we want to say that, had 9/11 never occurred, our home would be dramatically different. But how true is that, really? Certainly the downtown skyline would look as it had since 1972. Certainly we wouldn’t have to cope with occasional bag searches on the subway—or the indignity of de-shoeing at LaGuardia (and now, de-liquefying). And certainly some 3,000 of our neighbors would still blessedly be alive.

Yet, as a number of our contributors contend, the seminal trends that have shaped the city these past five years would have played out in any case. “The drop in crime, the rising income inequality, the continual changeover from a city of renters to a city of co-op owners—these have little to do with 9/11,” notes NYU sociologist Dalton Conley . Still others observe that many of the horrors predicted at the time never came to pass. The real-estate market didn’t collapse; instead, it soared. Applications to NYU didn’t plummet; instead, they went through the roof. The city didn’t become an American Belfast in the eyes of potential tourists; it became, improbably, more glamorous and seductive.

All of which is to say that New York would, no doubt, be a different place if 9/11 hadn’t happened. But would it be better? I’m not so sure. True, we’d all be a little less fearful—but then fear has its uses. As Bob Kerrey once said to me, “A certain amount of anxiety is good for you—it keeps you on your toes.”


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