How Little About Us Bin Laden Changed
When al Qaeda attacked the twin towers it hoped to paralyze our economic system as a way of undermining our way of living. As I struggled to make my way across Manhattan late on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, it did seem as if our lives might never be the same. Everywhere around me, New York seemed exposed. Every truck and SUV parked along the curb might be a potential bomb waiting to go off, every bridge and tunnel a target.
In the days after, many people wondered if our economy could withstand the weight of the new war, and if New York was finished as a great city. A newspaper headline warned of "Vacant Rooms, Empty Tables, Scared Tourists." Another headline, "The Exodus," described businesses scrambling to leave Gotham. The City in London, another story explained, would become the new global home of finance.
But today, nearly a decade after 9-11 and just days after the agitator of the plot, Osama bin Laden, was dispatched, what is remarkable is how much less has changed than we anticipated it would. New York still has a giant ache in its heart for the nearly 3,000 who died, many of them heroically. Security lines are longer at airports. And there is a half-filled hole where the towers stood, as the government led-reconstruction effort has dragged on interminably while those in charge considered a host of screwy, impractical ideas before finally deciding to remake Ground Zero as a commercial center again.
But in a way that would have been completely unanticipated in those days following 9-11, the most important changes that have occurred in New York and in America in the past decade turn out not to be those spurred by jihad. In the last decade, two of New York's major investment banks have disappeared, but they weren't victims of terrorist attacks. The future of the New York Stock Exchange, once the hub of the city's financial industry, is in doubt, but because of challenges from competitors, not because of jihad. Washington gave far more in aid to buoy our financial system in 2008 and 2009 than it did in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001. And when we hear people talk about threats to the future of that system these days, they're more likely to be referring to Dodd-Frank than to the work of terrorists. How different the world is from that day in September of 2001.
Gotham is not quite in the peachy shape that Mayor Bloomberg suggested on Monday when he observed that "Bin Laden is dead and New York's spirit has never been stronger.' But it is a strange testament to the resilience of our way of life that 10 years later, we struggle more against the volatility of our own economy that the terrorists wanted to take apart than against an external threat.
The challenges seemed far more formidable back in the fall of 2001 than they do today. We expended enormous resources to confront those challenges. We fought two wars, costing thousands of good American lives. We invested in security, bolstered our anti-terrorism efforts, and spent money to make our financial systems redundant. A good deal of what we did actually paid off. That's why we're far less changed by bin Laden's war than he thought we'd be.
In the aftermath of 9-11 many of America's critics gloated that Islamic extremists would win the clash of civilizations because we had grown too complacent and loved life too much, while our enemies were willing to embrace death. Today, many of those enemies, including bin Laden, are dead. But we still hear that the age of America is over, only now it's because we're supposed to be too corrupt, or too greedy.
Startling events like 9-11 or a global financial meltdown often provoke apocalyptic predictions. Today, we awake and our way of life has changed remarkably little. And bin Laden is gone.