What If 9/11 Never Happened?

Photo: Najilah Feanny/Corbis

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.

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.”

Next: Andrew Sullivan’s What-If Blog

Photo: Luke Frazza/AFP/Getty Images; Joe Raedle/Getty Images (Gore Head); Bob Falcetti/Getty Images (Lieberman Head)

The Good News Is 9/11 Never Happened. The bad news?
Andrew Sullivan blogs from a parallel world

September 1, 2006, 7:32 a.m.
After a somber beginning, the president finally found his voice last night. It’s been hard for him to connect viscerally to the public, and the formality of a congressional address doesn’t exactly help. He remains awkward, stiff, emotionally detached. That strange interlude in the 2004 campaign, when he finally seemed human enough to be elected, has evaporated again—just when he needs it most. His approval ratings still haven’t gotten past the mid-fifties—and it doesn’t help, of course, that he lost the popular vote the one time it counted. Karmic payback, I suppose.

But the facts are on his side. As he amassed the evidence for WMD materials and hundreds (possibly thousands) of trained terrorists in Afghanistan’s camps, as he made the case for what he calls “aggressive defense” against the Taliban, as he linked this threat to the newly belligerent regime in Tehran, he gained a certain logical and emotional traction. At least I hope he did. This is what he ran on, and although it’s taken him almost two agonizing years to get to this moment, he still gets credit in my book. Yes, it took aerial photographs of alleged chemical factories in Kandahar to get him to closure. But he got there—which is more than Bush ever did in four years.

With Defense Secretary Lindsey Graham in the chamber, Gore also has some Republican cover. The neocons, alas, don’t count anymore. Bush’s 2002 backdown over China and his almost pathological caution about war in the Middle East—like father, like son—put the Weekly Standard crowd in the wilderness long ago.

Osama bin Laden has warned of “devastating” consequences if we act. The isolationists on the right (and far left), of course, are pointing to this as a reason to—yes—back down. In a column decrying “another Democratic war,” Patrick Buchanan played the Jewish card against Lieberman again. Michael Moore is accusing Gore of “Democratic treason” for an oil pipeline. Unhinged, as usual. But this act of “aggressive defense” is supported by Britain, China, Russia, Germany, and blocked in the Security Council only by France. They’re all in on the conspiracy? Please.

Yes, there are grave risks of acting, but the fact remains that Al Qaeda has attacked U.S. interests at little cost for years now. From the USS Cole to the bombings at the embassies in Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Spain, and Turkey, they have been sending a message of global threat. Each blast killed more and more. I believed Secretary of State Holbrooke’s presentation at the U.N. We have no idea what Al Qaeda has been able to get its hands on these past few years. Do they have secret contacts in Pakistan as well as Iran? Do they have nuclear material?

September 14, 2006, 11:16 a.m.
“We have nothing to fear, as President Roosevelt said, but fear itself. History teaches, as President Reagan proved, that wars begin when our enemies believe the price of aggression is cheap. We stand at a crossroads in history—to hand the future of humankind to religious extremists at home and abroad, or to fight for our values and our Constitution and our security as Americans. I do not regard this as a partisan matter, or as a political matter. The security of the West is at stake, and we must act now, before it is too late.”

That’s the president, from the Oval Office last night. The air strikes began this morning. Next stop: ground troops?

September 23, 2006, 1:12 p.m.
The Joint Chiefs chairman says all the “critical” terrorist targets in Afghanistan have now been hit. The major air campaign is over. But Al Qaeda still runs the country. Now what? We’ve mobilized for ground troops (finally), but Gore is dithering again. The NYT predicts a “quagmire.” They always do.

October 23, 2006, 10:36 a.m.
AMERICA ATTACKED—that’s the headline on Drudge. world attacked would be more accurate. Write this date down now: October 23, 2006. It’s the day we finally slipped into the reality of the world many of us have feared for several years now. The Islamofascists—maybe that term won’t be so stigmatized in polite circles any longer—have struck.

The synchronization—five Western cities, if you include Tel Aviv and Moscow, within one hour of each other—suggests a sophisticated operation. There are poignant reports on CNN of text messages sent from the subway cars in the few minutes before the gas killed the passengers. They finish mid-sentence. London seems to be the worst hit so far. Given that the attacks happened at rush hour, and we don’t even know how many there were—ten? Twenty? The BBC is sticking to “more than a dozen”—it’s impossible to know how many people may have died. I’m seeing experts on Fox saying the swiftness of the deaths suggests cyanide. But how were the chemical weapons unleashed? Maybe we’ve just seen the first suicide bombings in the West.

We now know one thing: The Islamists were far too smart to attack prematurely. They could have pulled off a major domestic attack like this years ago. (I wonder how Bush would have responded if they had. Probably with the same deer-in-the-headlights rigidity with which he handled the economy.) Al Qaeda used the time to develop their WMD networks, their training camps, their ground troops. We thought our attack on Afghanistan was at a time we chose. We were dreaming. We didn’t realize they were merely waiting for an excuse, in order to rally the broader Muslim world against us as “aggressors” and “crusaders.” Now they have one. But we shouldn’t buy the propaganda. We didn’t want this conflict. They do.

October 23, 2006, 12:52 p.m.
I don’t see any other way to describe what seems to be unfolding but war. The president has issued an emergency freeze on all domestic flights. They’ve targeted airplanes as well? I guess the gas could work just as well in a 737. Up here in Ptown, people are walking about in a daze—and the skies are eerily silent, except for a couple of military planes that just flew ominously overhead. Fox News keeps running the London footage. My brother called to say he’s okay. A work friend of his is missing. The sight of those piles of limp bodies being pulled out of the bowels of Victoria Station is something I won’t easily forget. It’s the Blitz in reverse. When Hitler struck, Londoners went into the tubes to escape the carnage. Al Qaeda has turned that refuge into a mass tomb.

Meanwhile, chaos in NYC. A blogger who was on the path train under the World Trade Center (remember 1993?) has already posted one account: “The first thing I noticed was a weird smell—like almonds. All I could see was blackness and then the coughing and screaming. I wasn’t on the train yet so I simply turned and ran for the exits. I held my breath, but my eyes started watering and I felt as if I was going to puke. A big guy on the up escalator dropped like a professionally demolished skyscraper. Others on the platform seemed to be going into convulsions.”

To recap: We now have reports of up to 30 separate gas attacks in subway systems in New York, D.C., Moscow, and London, and a shower of chemical-tipped rockets directly into Tel Aviv from somewhere in the Syrian-controlled part of Lebanon.

October 24, 2006, 3:14 p.m.
CNN is reporting that the chemical used—hydrogen cyanide—may have been detonated by up to a hundred suicide bombers around the world. They’ve invented this device called a “mubtakkar” that any Islamist teenager can carry in a pocket and detonate at will. It’s their version of an iPod: an iGod that kills. Talk about asymmetric warfare. The experts say the mubtakkars can be detonated remotely as well—so they’ve ordered a curfew until major buildings can be inspected. The use of suicide bombers is therefore … simply a statement of determination and resolve. Martyrdom as a psychological weapon.

The death count is now estimated in the thousands. Some tunnels collapsed in New York’s and London’s subways, apparently exacerbating the toll. This could change, of course. Remember the first reports from Hurricane Georgia?

November 21, 2006, 6:30 p.m.
Just when you thought House speaker Tom DeLay couldn’t get any crasser, he goes and says this on Fox News:

“Look, we prompted this attack. Yes, the ultimate responsibility lies with Al Qaeda. I’m not denying that. They’re evil. But without the needless provocation by the president, thousands of Americans would be alive today. Containment could have worked.”

And so DeLay does to Gore what he once did to Clinton: undermine him in a critical war. Maybe it’s his increased majority in the House that has made him cocky, but for the record, I think DeLay’s political instincts are completely wrong here. Most Americans understand that the attacks prove how vulnerable we always were. The exit polls show that a clear majority of 2004 Gore voters who leaned Republican or independent saw the carnage in the embassies and voted accordingly. Gore has also neutralized the conservative isolationists by playing the anti-gay card so shrewdly. Campaigning against gay marriage helped him win a sliver of the GOP vote—enough to get him Ohio anyway. But his hawkishness was key. It still is.

November 30, 2006, 12:02 a.m.
The president’s fireside address last night was too FDR for my taste, but the insta-polls show a blip in Gore’s ratings. The country wants to be united, despite the cynicism of the Republican right (and now the defeatist rumblings on the academic far left).

Still: No one in the West is to blame for this. No one. Despite all I’ve said about George W. Bush—his crazed spending habit, his feckless indifference to the Islamist threat, his obsession with China for his first two years until the great “Beijing Betrayal,” his Faustian pact with the religious right—he wasn’t insane for believing the Islamist threat was unserious compared with the economic and military clout of China. Rumsfeld’s geostrategic obsession with Beijing was not irrational. It was merely wrong. It is hard enough to believe that individuals really do want to murder infidels. Who could have foreseen the simultaneous live burial of 10,372 innocent human beings over two continents? It was, as the tabloids put it, a terrorist tsunami. And like the actual one the Christmas before last, we did not have the warning signs to see it coming.

December 12, 2006, 6:41 p.m.
Good news: The Senate vote on ground troops to Afghanistan sends exactly the right message of commitment. But now there’s a new twist in Gore’s and Blair’s rhetoric. Gore is arguing that only by democratizing the Middle East can we win the long-term war. Huh? I can see the broad ideological point: We have to offer an alternative to the medieval despotism now gripping the region. But this is also where my own conservatism kicks in. We’re going to make Afghanistan a democracy? At best, it’ll take decades.

December 13, 2006, 3:15 p.m.
My sources tell me that former president Bill Clinton, even after his recent heart attack, will find the strength to sit behind Gore when he gives his address to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs next Saturday. There are even rumors that both president Bushes will show up—as an effort to convey national unity. Classy of them, especially the younger one. He’s still bearing a grudge from the Ohio recount, but he’s a patriot as well. He knows what’s at stake. Unlike some in his party. Cheney won’t show. Typical.

January 12, 2007, 8:19 a.m.
Reports are coming through overnight that Musharraf has been overthrown in Pakistan in what seems to be an Islamist coup centered in the intelligence services. Not confirmed yet—but it would not be a huge surprise. I’ve no doubt, however, that some Republican partisans (and assorted woolly-minded liberals) will blame Gore’s decision to airlift troops into eastern Pakistan as another needless provocation. But what’s the point of destroying the Taliban if we merely let Al Qaeda escape across the border?

It’s an unholy domestic alliance, this: Tom DeLay and now Jimmy Carter both arguing for “restraint.” Is Osama in Islamabad already, I wonder? The scuttlebutt from the White House is that he isn’t, and the Pakistani generals are bluffing. In fact, some CIA sources just told Novak that the Osama trail is getting hotter. But, alas, over the last five years, Al Qaeda has dispersed its leadership across the globe, from Indonesia to Londonistan. Getting Osama would be emotionally satisfying. I’m not sure it would be militarily significant.

Photo: AFP/Getty Images

January 20, 2007, 6:20 a.m.
Pakistan’s Islamist military junta says that the global “jihad” has entered a “new phase,” and they’ve listed a series of demands. It’s the familiar litany, the “elimination” of the “Zionist entity” chief among them.

Gore’s pledge to increase troop numbers in Afghanistan to 300,000—and his promise to divert all the proceeds of the new gas tax to adding four new divisions to the military—is exactly the right message to my mind. Chuck Hagel’s tirade against this act of “warmongering” can safely be dismissed. Thank God for McCain.

March 17, 2007, 7:14 p.m.
We got him. Osama wasn’t in Islamabad after all. The air strike that killed him and two of his wives will prove a huge morale boost. Maybe it will even embolden our friends in the Pakistan military to seize back power. The show trial and public hanging of Musharraf might yet backfire as well. And the hideous toll of Islamist rule we’ve uncovered in Afghanistan—the death camps for infidels, the mass graves of “unruly” women and homosexuals—could surely help turn Muslim opinion in our direction.

I’m also encouraged by the extension of the no-fly zones in Iraq. Iraq has been the quiet success story of the last few years—one of the few places where the Bush-DeLay containment strategy makes sense. Saddam has no real WMDs left—the U.N. inspectors proved that over the last three years. But extending the protected zone to the southern marshlands, as Gore now proposes, and allowing that ancient culture to slowly recover from Saddam’s butchery, can only be good PR. I’m glad Bush offered a statement supporting Gore’s decision. They’re even planning elections in Basra, along the Kurdish model. Bit by bit, we’re slowly repartitioning Iraq, and glacially democratizing its de facto mini-states in the south and north, and now southeast. Maybe it will prove more fertile democratic territory than Afghanistan. It could hardly be worse.

July 30, 2007, 11:32 a.m.
Maybe all wars are like this. There are periods of hope, interspersed with bouts of dark terror. Pakistan’s dictator today issued yet another list of “demands,” even more outrageous, including another threat of a “devastating counterattack” if we do not withdraw from eastern Pakistan. What makes this more worrying than in the past is that it was issued in a joint press conference with the newly elected president of Iran, one Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. I’m still trying to spell his name right. But he seems of an altogether more serious cast than his predecessor. Why the constant allusions to the twelfth Imam in his rant about Kandahar? I guess if Armageddon is a useful rhetorical ploy for James Dobson, we shouldn’t expect it to be ignored by the Shiites.

DeLay, of course, has now called for “consolidation” of the Afghanistan effort in a veiled attack on Gore’s “overreach.” “Pakistan is one nation too far.” In the battle for the soul of the GOP, DeLay does seem to be gaining on McCain.

September 11, 2007, 12:26 p.m.
The NYT reports that U.S. intelligence has picked up signs that Pakistan has funneled nuclear material to Al Qaeda cells in the U.S. The reports come from leaked documents outlining after-the-fact warnings picked up at various ports—specifically San Diego and Philadelphia. I don’t know what to think. It’s a little hard to believe that our only intelligence on this kind of thing is after this stuff may have already been imported. The leak—rather than an announcement—will only make the panic worse. It’s one thing to know that there’s a risk of nuclear material being smuggled into the U.S. It’s another thing to be told we have evidence that it already has.

Gore is due to give an Oval Office address tonight. Suddenly, I get tremors of 10/23 all over again. CNN is showing the freeways out of New York, Philly, D.C., and L.A. jammed to the gills. My bet is that the Zipcar is booked already. I’ll live-blog the speech later. Stay tuned.

September 11, 2007, 9:30 p.m.
Gore called for calm. He had the right words, but this time they didn’t soothe. I kept waiting for his assurance that Al Qaeda didn’t have the capacity to detonate dirty nukes in various cities. But the words didn’t come. He seemed composed himself. But something about his demeanor suggested … well, it suggested he wasn’t any surer about that than any of us are. And so we wait … For some reason, I went to the window and took a picture of what lay outside. I wanted some memento of life before. Before what? I don’t know. We’re waiting to know that as well. Next Scenario: Thomas L. Friedman, Columnist

Thomas L. Friedman
columnist, New York Times

The United States would have a much more hostile relationship with China. September 11 took all the worst instincts of the Bush administration about China, the sense that we were somehow fated to be in a cold war with them, and put them in a deep freeze. The attacks put America and China on the same side of a new divide between the world of order and the world of disorder. Since the U.S. and China have the biggest and most important relationship in the world, the fact that tensions didn’t increase was a big geopolitical dog that didn’t bark. All of the oil price trends would have existed—and existed more, because if 9/11 didn’t happen, there would have been more globalization, more global commerce. China and India would have risen as fast, if not faster. September 11 didn’t stop globalization, obviously, but it slowed the process down. And North Korea would have been as far, if not farther along, in its ambitions, because China, given a more hostile relationship with the U.S., would have been less cooperative in dealing with Kim Jong Il. I seriously doubt that George W. Bush would be president. Security was the key issue in 2004, and absent that, it’s hard for me to believe that John Kerry couldn’t have beaten him. Bush used 9/11 to take a far-right domestic agenda from 9/10 and drive it into a 9/12 world. And that 9/10 agenda was not exactly going anywhere. In the wake of 9/11, this administration began to shift America’s status in the world from a country that exported hope to a country that exported fear. And when you export fear, you end up importing everyone else’s fears. Next: Jonathan Miller, Real-Estate Appraiser

Jonathan Miller
real-estate appraiser, Miller Samuel

September 11 prompted this housing boom. Just before 9/11 we were in a recession; housing prices began to fall and volume really dropped off. We would have seen a continuation of a slide throughout much of the next two years. A run-up occurred as the result of the Fed’s post-9/11 action to drop interest rates, which led to a sharp decrease in mortgage rates. It’s that decrease that ultimately led to the price appreciation we’ve seen. Next: Bernard-Henri Lévy, Author

Bernard-Henri Lévy
author, American Vertigo

If 9/11 had not happened? America would be swimming in happiness. Kerry would be president. We would get to airports at the last minute, and the paranoia proportion would be lower. Iran’s voice would be less important. Daniel Pearl would still be alive. Francis Fukuyama would have beaten Samuel Huntington, who would be seen almost everywhere for the crypto-fascist that he is. History would be over. The week would have seven Sundays. Writers would be writing novels; philosophers, philosophy. Wall Street would be touching the sky. Gas would be $20 a barrel. Castro would still be the devil. Oliver Stone would have made a movie about a still-reigning Saddam Hussein. The superrich would be cooler, and more concerned with poverty in poor countries. I would have written my second volume on “forgotten wars.” I wouldn’t have had to shorten my vacation in Saint Paul de Vence to do a story about Israel at war. Palestinians would have a state. Moderate Muslims would control the Islamic extremists. America would be less religious (God help us!), France less anti-American (“these Yankee bastards are fighting back too hard, endangering world peace”). But it’s all a contradiction in terms. Because 9/11 did happen. Next: Dahlia Lithwick, Supreme Court Correspondent

Dahlia Lithwick
Supreme Court correspondent, Slate

Had 9/11 never occurred, we’d still be debating the boundaries of executive power, but we’d have to do it without one of the most important sentences penned in our legal lifetimes. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s “a state of war isn’t a blank check for the president,” may not have been written, but we’d likely be fighting over vast expansions of police power. Many of the Patriot Act’s most sweeping provisions had been on John Ashcroft’s Christmas wish list for domestic crime fighting long before 9/11. And unsurprisingly, Patriot Act provisions have been used to prosecute a Las Vegas vice lord and interrogate a college death-penalty opponent in cases having nothing to do with terrorism. September 11 was a useful excuse. Systematic erosions of the warrant requirement, liberal use of presidential signing statements, sweeping notions of what constitutes a “state secret,” and efforts to sideline the courts would all merely have been directed at criminals. This was a constitutional shift waiting to happen. Without a war on terror, the administration’s legal focus would have stayed on the culture wars. Efforts to reverse Roe v. Wade and roll back affirmative action and the separation of church and state would have been serious. Bush’s choices for the Supreme Court could have been different. A President Bush who believes that terrorism must be fought by the president without oversight or check had to select Supreme Court nominees guaranteed to sanction that. If that need didn’t exist, Chief Justice Roy Moore could have by now torn down the Supreme Court cafeteria to house the 7,000-pound rotating crystal monument he’d built to the Ten Commandments. Next: Frank Rich, Columnist

Frank Rich
columnist, New York Times

When President Bush returned from Crawford to Washington in September 2001, his poll numbers were mediocre, his one burning ideological mission had already been accomplished (tax cuts), and his administration’s policy cupboard was bare except for Social Security privatization (a nonstarter with Democrats) and vague notions of immigration reform (a nonstarter with House Republicans). Without 9/11 to fill the vacuum of his slacker’s presidency, we’d likely have seen a fast-tracking of the scandal foretold by the Tom DeLay K Street project and an earlier and bloodier culture war: Karl Rove could focus his undivided attention on satisfying his base’s hunger for decisive action against abortion, stem-cell research, contraception, and gay people. (Whether indecency would have been on this agenda depends on the answer to another of history’s great what-if questions: What if Janet Jackson had not had a wardrobe malfunction during the Super Bowl?) Without 9/11, there would have been no rationale for ginning up hysteria about imminent mushroom clouds emanating from Baghdad and hence no way to pivot to a gratuitous war in Iraq. Besides, Bush had come to office pledged to a “humble” (i.e., minimalist Bush 41) foreign policy and opposed to nation building. Grand neocon delusions would have remained dormant as Rumsfeld instead busied himself on his grandiose schemes for remaking the Pentagon, not the Middle East.

Since the Republicans would have had no fear card to play in the 2004 election, the Democrats, having won the popular vote in 2000, would have won it again, this time benefiting from a backlash against the religious right’s overreach, even if they had neither better ideas nor candidates than the opposition. Once in office, might they too have ignored an intelligence briefing titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.”? Maybe, but once the inevitable attack came, they too would have won the war in Afghanistan—and, not being tied down in Iraq, maybe they would have made sure it stayed won rather than let the Taliban regroup in the ensuing years.

The broader culture would have gone its own way, 9/11 or no 9/11—progressing effortlessly from the obsessions of Gary Condit and Survivor in summer ’01 to Brangelina and American Idol in ’06. The Oliver Stone project of August ’06, however, would not be World Trade Center, but, with exquisite timing, Fidel. Mel Gibson, having uncovered no “Jewish” wars to trigger his career self-immolation, would be the obvious choice to star. He would quickly sign on once Stone indicated his intention to make the movie in subtitled Spanish. Next: Leon Wieseltier, Literary Editor

Leon Wieseltier
literary editor, The New Republic

America would have enjoyed the luxury of some more time in the post–Cold War, inward-looking, money-mad bliss. History had ended, remember? But the bliss would have, in any event, been short-lived. Because if 9/11 had not happened, then 9/12 would have happened, or 9/13 or 9/14. The turbulence in the Islamic world; the fear of modernity and its great representative, the United States; the hatred of Israel—these were all waiting to explode. (So was the North Korean nuclear gambit and the Iranian nuclear gambit: The world was, even then, a much more perilous place than many Americans, and many American policymakers, had wanted to know.) I imagine that it must have been excruciating to be the president of the United States on 9/11, and I understand his subsequent virulence toward the enemies of the United States, but Bush became another victim, the most distinguished and powerful victim, of the instability of thought that 9/11 unleashed in this country. Since 9/11, the discussion of urgent national questions has been dangerously volatile: In Washington, there is almost no point in beginning a political conversation anymore, since you immediately discover that you are speaking either to a Shark or a Jet. The sad truth, however, is that it doesn’t matter anymore what America would have been like if 9/11 had never happened. It was one of the cataclysmic days in our history, one of the great American experiences of the irreversibility of history. And the sadder truth is that most Americans live as if 9/11 did not happen—basically, we’re all still shopping as before. And even the president wants us to stay the same. Once again, this blessed country is weirdly detached from its own historical situation. Next: Tom Wolfe, Novelist

Tom Wolfe

The New York real-estate market would have become so hot, hot, hot that by now developers would be converting grand old hotels such as the Westbury, the Stanhope, the Mayfair, perhaps even the Plaza, into condominium apartments selling for $10 million and up. By now a socialite would be any young woman who has appeared in three or more party pictures taken by Patrick McMullan for any of a dozen or so fat party-picture magazines. A local music genre called hip-hop, created by black homeboys in the South Bronx, would have swept the country, topping the charts and creating a hip-hop look featuring baggy jeans with the crotch hanging down to the knees that would have spread far and wide among white teenagers—awed, stunned, as they were, by the hip-hop musicians’ new form of competition: assassinating each other periodically. How cool would that have been? Two historic pillars of the New York economy—shipping and garment manufacturing—would have vanished by now. There would be 40 empty piers on the Hudson River, and the only shipping would be an intrepid but decrepit aircraft carrier welded to a dock and turned into a museum. Meanwhile, a little known Asian country called Bangladesh would be manufacturing more clothes for the American market than Manhattan’s West Twenties, West Thirties, and Chinatown put together. Latins today would make up 40 percent of the city’s public school population, easily outnumbering black students (35 percent), while the white component would have declined still further (15 percent). The big news, however, would be the surge in the number of Asian students, which might have rocketed upward by as much as 10 percent a year. The city would have had two Republican mayors in a row for the first time in modern history. There are no silver linings in 9/11, and it is no consolation to say that at least we didn’t wind up with a senseless, baffling, flotsam city like that. Next: Reverend Al Sharpton

Reverend Al Sharpton

Certainly we would not have had the Iraq war. That would have changed the lives of the soldiers who died. I don’t think Mark Green would have won the primary on 9/11. Freddy Ferrer would have won the Democratic nomination and be the mayor. Race relations would be better under Ferrer. The attack and the fear it generated led to people returning in mass to faith, depending more on religion for guidance and protection, which gave a tremendous revival to those who in my judgment misuse their religious fervor. People were searching for answers and absolutes, which gives zealots an opportunity to promise something that wasn’t there. Sometimes people can only find comfort by grabbing at something that promises stability. When you’re drowning in an ocean, you grab for a raft like it’s a concrete building. Next: Ron Suskind, Author

Ron Suskind
author, The One Percent Doctrine

Would we be as vigilant if there hadn’t been a 9/11, vigilant enough to have found and foiled the London plot? Probably not. There’s a fair to good chance that there would be ten planes blowing up over the continental U.S. As for Iraq, the Bush administration’s intention from the very start was not whether to overthrow Saddam, but how. Certainly the administration was focused on setting new rules of the geopolitical game as the world’s sole superpower. The view was that Saddam Hussein could be made an example of, that he was an easy mark, and that that would shape global behavior and send a signal to anyone with the temerity to challenge us. We might be in Iraq even without 9/11. Meanwhile, the growth and violent intentions of Islamic fundamentalism would have reared their heads sometime in this period, whether last week or earlier. In the eyes of the violent jihadist community, maybe 9/11 is akin to the U.S. hockey team winning the ’80 Olympics: “Oh, my goodness! I can’t believe how many breaks we got to have a moment like this!” Or, maybe, it’s like the early days of Microsoft—a few people with a powerful, disruptive idea. Bin Laden is as much an ideology as an individual at this point. And Al Qaeda can be patient, deliberative. Their surviving, along with their ideology, is a kind of victory. It grows on its own, with the exercise of U.S. power often acting like sunlight and water. Next: Dan Doctoroff, Deputy Mayor


Dan Doctoroff
deputy mayor of economic development and rebuilding

Many of the big projects that are under way today would not be where they are had it not been for 9/11. The transformation of lower Manhattan, the expansion the West Side, the extension of the 7 line, the Atlantic Yards, the list goes on and on. Much of it would not have been doable but for 9/11. People had this very romantic notion about lower Manhattan before 9/11, but the reality was it was in long-term decline; from 1970 to 2001, the number of jobs there declined by 64,000. We never would have had the resources or the will to invest the way we’re investing in lower Manhattan. Back in 2001, if you had walked one block in any direction from the World Trade Center, it was blighted. That is changing right now, as we speak. Next: Doris Kearns Goodwin, Author

Doris Kearns Goodwin
author, Team of Rivals

Without 9/11, Congress would not have authorized the use of force in Iraq, even with the illusory argument that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction. Without a foreign-policy crisis to focus his presidency, domestic issues would have taken priority, and if that were so, President Bush would most likely have lost his bid for reelection. Polls have consistently shown that the domestic priorities of the Bush administration are not shared by the majority of Americans. Without the war in Iraq, it is less likely that John Kerry would have won the nomination since there would not have been a premium on previous war experience and foreign-policy expertise. In that scenario, the most likely Democratic candidate would have been Al Gore. Without 9/11, the memories of the election fiasco in 2000 would have been much stronger, the sense that Gore deserved a second chance much more intense. Had Gore become president, and had he embarked immediately on a Manhattan Project for alternative energy, our country might now be on the road to independence from Middle Eastern oil. Next: Robert Ivy, Editor-in-Chief

Robert Ivy
editor-in-chief, Architectural Record

I don’t think the ordinary citizen would have cared so much for the city as a physical place. It was obvious that the perpetrators looked at these buildings as symbols, so New Yorkers turned to architecture to heal the gaping wound. Ordinary people are now able to comment on the work of Santiago Calatrava, Daniel Libeskind, and Frank Gehry. It changed our perception of what it means to be a city dweller—people aren’t just letting developers dictate the future anymore. Next: Fareed Zakaria, Editor

Fareed Zakaria
editor, Newsweek International

The week before 9/11, the biggest news story in America—getting wall-to-wall coverage—was Chandra Levy. (Remember her?) So we can easily imagine what a world without 9/11 would look like. Peace, prosperity, and trivia. George Bush would probably not have been reelected (his poll numbers were sinking by September 2001, even among conservatives). But even if he were in office, it would be a different presidency, focused on his domestic interests, such as faith-based initiatives and education reform. Congress would be wasting the people’s money (some things never change). Issues like gay marriage and Terri Schiavo would dominate the public spotlight. The best-selling book would not be on Iraq but about getting rich by investing in waterfront real estate (the sure sign of a market peak). But, to prick this fantasy, Afghanistan would still be run by the Taliban, and Al Qaeda would be happily ensconced there. Wahhabi clerics would still be fomenting hatred of the West. Saudi millionaires would still be funding madrassas and militants. And there would still be jihadis plotting a terrorist attack on the United States. History would have been delayed, not denied. Next: Dalton Conley, University Chairman

Dalton Conley
chair, department of sociology, New York University

Five years later, I think New York is perhaps the least-affected place in the country. And that’s simply because the wheel that 9/11 set in motion has led to two wars and the largest deployment of military reserve forces in recent history. This means that places like Scranton, Pennsylvania, or Mobile, Alabama, have had their daily rhythms and lives continuously uprooted, and New York, and Manhattan in particular, with perhaps the lowest percentage of reservists of any area in the country, has not really felt the impact of Afghanistan and Iraq as much as Peoria, Illinois. The forces that have made New York what they are today—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. Next: Douglas Brinkley, Author

Douglas Brinkley
author, The Great Deluge

Without 9/11, it seems certain that the Bush administration would have been shaped by the domestic crisis of Hurricane Katrina. Rather than standing on the rubble at ground zero with his bullhorn, Bush would best be known for standing on some waterlogged roof in the Ninth Ward and setting up a Gulf Coast White House, some federal nerve center to rebuild the whole region, fix the crumbling Lego levees once and for all, and bring attention to infrastructure nationwide—schools, roads, power grids. Already there would have been the big Northeast blackout of 2003 and now we’d be really devoting ourselves to infrastructure in the face of the blackouts in Queens, in St. Louis, in California. New Orleans itself would be a monumental engineering feat, a Marshall Plan for the Gulf South. A lot more attention would be paid to wetlands, the way we lose two football fields of land a day. Bush would’ve gotten on the bullhorn in the Ninth Ward and had a moment like Kennedy’s moon speech, when he rallied America behind the civic mission of restoring our heritage and rebuilding our country—instead of watching it fall apart the way we’re doing now. Next: Hank Sheinkopf, Political Consultant

Hank Sheinkopf
political consultant

Mark Green would have been the mayor. Rudy Giuliani would have been run out of town on a rail. Of course, 3,000 people would still be alive. And Larry Silverstein wouldn’t be in the news every day. The most amazing thing of all is that people stayed. We didn’t really grasp the significance of this place, that it was more than just a financial combine. New York became a human place for people. We didn’t realize who we were before: We are the center of the world. And I don’t think we ever really understood what that meant before that day. Next: Tony Harris and Brian K. Vaughan, Graphic-Novelists

By Tony Harris and Brian K. Vaughan
co-creators of Ex Machina, a graphic-novel series about an ex-superhero New York City mayor

September 11, 2006: Sitting at his usual table at Windows on the World, former mayor Rudolph Giuliani dines alone, unnoticed.

Compiled by Jada Yuan with Marcus Baram, Ira Boudway, Ariel Brewster, Katie Charles, Meghann Farnsworth, Rebecca Milzoff, Richard Morgan, Janelle Nanos, Emma Pearse, Julia Ramey, Bee Shaffer, and Rachel Wolff.

What If 9/11 Never Happened?