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Beginning of the 21st Century, Terrorist Attacks on the United States

Tom Ridge, bombings of, National Guard troops, World Trade Center towers, North Atlantic Treaty Organization

American life changed forever on the morning of September 11, 2001. Terrorists hijacked four commercial jetliners, crashing two into the World Trade Center towers in New York City, which collapsed into smoldering rubble. Another hit the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, while the fourth plane crashed in rural Pennsylvania after what was believed to be a passenger uprising against the hijackers. More than 3,000 people died in the attacks.

America was suddenly at war. The government shut down all air traffic for two days as fighter jets patrolled the skies. National Guard troops were deployed on the streets in New York City and Washington, D.C. The major stock exchanges were closed.

The event traumatized the nation. Most Americans saw their country as virtually unassailable as the 21st century began. With the Cold War over, America’s status as the world’s lone superpower seemed secure. But as millions watched the catastrophe unfold on television, it was clear that the country was vulnerable in ways that most people had not imagined.

After the initial shock, the country mobilized. Volunteers flooded blood banks and military recruiting stations. Millions of dollars were raised for the families of victims. A new patriotic sentiment surfaced as sales of American flags surged. Many people spoke of simplifying their lives and of spending more time with family and friends.

The U.S. government quickly identified the hijackers as members of al-Qaeda, an organization that, according to U.S. officials, connected and coordinated fundamentalist Islamic terrorist groups around the world. The government also believed that al-Qaeda was responsible for other attacks, including the bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998 and the attack on the Navy ship U.S.S. Cole in Yemen in 2000. Its leader, a wealthy Saudi businessman named Osama bin Laden, had pledged jihad, or holy war, against the United States for its activities in the Middle East. The group made their headquarters in Afghanistan, where it was supported by the country’s rulers, an Islamic fundamentalist movement known as the Taliban.

Instead of launching an immediate attack, Bush spent the first days following the terrorist attacks consulting with military leaders and assembling a coalition of nations to fight terrorism. The coalition included countries in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alliance such as Britain and key neighbors of Afghanistan such as India and Pakistan.

Fears rose again in early October when a powdered form of the bacterium known as anthrax began to appear in letters in some places around the country. Anthrax lives in the soil and is most often found in grass-eating animals such as cattle. It forms hard-to-kill spores that, when ingested, can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections. Over the next few weeks, anthrax killed five people in Florida, New York, Connecticut, and Washington, D.C. It also forced the temporary closure of two congressional office buildings. At first some investigators thought that the outbreak was another form of attack by al-Qaeda. As the investigation progressed, however, some came to believe that someone inside the United States was responsible.

In early October the United States went to war, bombing al-Qaeda training camps and missile installations in Afghanistan. Within a few weeks, U.S. marines joined with Afghan opposition groups to topple the Taliban. The U.S. forces killed or captured many al-Qaeda fighters, but bin Laden remained at large.

On the home front, President Bush signed a law in 2002 that created a new executive department, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The department’s mission was to protect the United States against terrorist attacks, reduce the country’s vulnerability to terrorism, and aid recovery in case of an attack. Bush nominated Tom Ridge to head the department. The DHS combined dozens of federal agencies into one department, the largest government reorganization since the Department of Defense was created in 1947.

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