A man pauses to look at a mural in Brooklyn on Sept. 18, 2001 in memory of the World Trade Center and the over 5,000 people who died in the terrorist attack.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty

How 2015 bears striking echoes of 2001 in America

A devastating terror attack by Muslim extremists fostered in the chaos of a broken Middle Eastern state rattles millions in the West. Neocons demand evermore hawkish proposals for U.S. ground troops abroad and increased surveillance at home. Democrats puff out their chests, offering their own versions of tough talk in trouble times. The president vows to overcome the threat — while at the same time urging for calm and religious tolerance at home.

That surely sounds familiar: It’s the world we’ve been living in since the terrorist attacks in Paris and since the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California. 

But it was also the world right after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

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To be sure, the latest attack in California was not on the same scale as 9/11, nor is there any evidence that the suspected shooters were part of a larger terrorist organization, as was the case with al-Qaeda 14 years ago. Still, there are striking and unsettling parallels between post-9/11 and post-San Bernardino America. In both cases, the politics of fear and the politics of “the other” reigned supreme, whether their practitioners were Donald Trump or John Bolton.

“When the nation faces a national security threat, the instinct for many politicians is to respond to these fears through promises of aggression, whether that means military force overseas or promises to vastly expand the government to catch enemy threats. This was certainly the case in 2001,” said Julian Zelizer, a political historian Princeton University.

12/7/15, 6:06 PM ET

Trump supporters: Banning Muslims 'good idea'

Watch Donald Trump supporters express their viewpoints on the GOP presidential hopeful calling for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”

One of the biggest parallels to 14 years ago is an increased sense of Islamophobia here at home, especially as presidential candidates play on the politics of fear. Take, for example, Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump, who on Monday called “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what’s going on.” Since the attacks on Paris, he has also floated the idea of closing mosques and  registering all Muslims into a national database.

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush have suggested allowing Christian refugees from Syria in the country — but not Muslims. Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson caught some serious heat this fall after suggesting the president of the United States should not be a Muslim.

And similar to the spike in anti-Muslim hate crimes and bias incidents after 9/11, a disturbing pattern has also emerged in the past few weeks that hasn’t been seen since 2001, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “It does have the same look as what we experienced after 9/11,” said Corey Saylor, the national legislative director of CAIR. “There’s been an intensification of violent rhetoric and anecdotally more violent incidents.”

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To each man’s credit, Presidents Bush and Obama both responded strongly to anti-Muslim rhetoric and action. Nine days after the Twin Towers fell, Bush told the country, “The faith of terror is not the true faith of Islam. Islam is peace,” and he added that “the terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect to hijack Islam itself. The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends.”

“It does have the same look as what we experienced after 9/11. There’s been an intensification of violent rhetoric and anecdotally more violent incidents.”
Corey Saylor, national legislative director of CAIR
During Obama’s Sunday night address to the nation, which served as an effort to reassure Americans about their safety, the president defended Muslim-Americans while also urging their community to stand up to extremism. “Muslim-Americans are our friends and our neighbors, our co-workers, our sports heroes. And yes, they are our men and women in uniform who are willing to die in defense of our country. We have to remember that,” Obama said.

As there was in 2001, there’s also renewed hawkish talk from both sides of the political aisle about sending U.S. ground troops to fight terrorists abroad. Of course, one of the biggest differences is this time we have a president who opposes any large scale ground troop presence — instead opting to use more special forces to advise and assist existing opposition forces. But there are plenty of lawmakers and candidates who would like to see more U.S. soldiers join the fight against ISIS.

Even the debate over surveillance sounds oddly familiar. The Patriot Act, which gave the government broad power to search private records and detain suspects in the name of fighting terror, was born after 9/11. Now, a fight is currently brewing between emerging serious 2016 competitors Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida — with Rubio wanting to restore surveillance measures under the Patriot Act and Cruz expressing opposition to the government’s bulk collection of telephone metadata.

Saylor said that, although the U.S. has close to 15 years of experience in national security since the 9/11 attacks, he still has concerns of a similar Patriot Act being instituted and that Congress may take action to erode American civil rights in a “misguided sense of trying to protect America.” He also added, “I’m also very concerned someone will walk into a mosque or a Muslim institution and take the law into their own hands.”

Paris, San Bernardino shooting, September 11th and War On Terror

How 2015 bears striking echoes of 2001 in America