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opinion | Michael A. Cohen

9/11 did not transform the world

One World Trade Center, seen from the Brooklyn Promenade, was built on the site of the Sept. 11 attacks in New York.Getty Images/file 2013

Li ke every New Yorker I remember Sept. 11, 2001, like it happened yesterday.

There was the feeling of utter disbelief when I turned on the television that morning to see two gaping holes in the twin towers of World Trade Center; the surreal sensation of walking down my block and seeing smoke from Lower Manhattan while those around me were still oblivious to the horror unfolding a mile a way; the acrid smell of burning steel and constant conversations that began with “where were you . . . ” that became a routine feature of daily life in New York; and worst of all the realization, two days after the attacks, that my friend, Brock Safronoff, whose wedding I’d attended five weeks earlier, had died that morning in the North Tower.


From a national perspective, 9/11 felt like a before and after moment. But looking back 13 years later that seems not quite right. The horror of 9/11 increasingly feels more like an outlier event in global history; a terrible tragedy that bred an irrational response but not one that transformed the world.

If we really want to think about global inflection points we need to step back 25 years into the past.

In September 1989 Hungary began to lift the Iron Curtain by allowing East Germans to flee via its territory to the West. This would hasten the demise of communism, eventually end the Cold War, and give birth to a new wave of freedom, economic prosperity, and global peace. It led to a host of changes in global affairs that were already taking place on 9/11 and continued, uninterrupted, in the years afterward.

For example, according to Freedom House, there were 69 electoral democracies in 1989; today there are 122 — a jump from 41 percent to 63 percent of all countries. And although the news today is full of stories about the latest atrocities in Syria, Iraq, and Ukraine, the overall trend in global conflict is toward fewer and less lethal wars. Indeed, the decade from 2001 to 2010, ironically, is generally considered one of the most peaceful in human history.


At the United Nations Millennium Summit in 2000, eight Millennium Development Goals — related to hunger, education, health, environmental sustainability, and gender equity — were established with a deadline of 2015. While not every goal has been met, the results are still startling — the global poverty rate has been cut in half; child mortality rates halved (which saves the lives of 17,000 children every day); 90 percent of children in the developed world attend a primary school; measles immunizations have prevented 14 million deaths; and billions of people have gained access to sanitation and clean water.

Another underappreciated trend is the world’s growing economic interdependence. There are 160 countries in the World Trade Organization, which may not seem like a big deal, but, in reality, interlinks the nations of the world around a basic set of rules and norms regarding economic interaction. While once trade disputes led to conflict, even war, today there is a peaceful means of arbitrating differences that countries willingly adhere to. Indeed, the fact that China, the world’s future largest economy, joined the WTO in December 2001 will likely be seen as a more transformative global event than the tragedy that occurred three months earlier in New York.

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None of this to suggest that the threat of terrorism is unimportant or should be ignored. But the threat and the battle between good and evil that George W. Bush described after 9/11 is of far less global import than these extraordinary advances. If there is any argument to be made that 9/11 was a before and after moment it comes not from the act itself, but from America’s response to it. By attacking Afghanistan and, worse, Iraq; by turning terrorism into the defining issue of American foreign policy; by reducing global affairs to those “with us’’ or “against us,’’ the United States ensured that what should have been a one-off tragedy evolved into something far more insidious — a fact highlighted by the continued violence in Iraq and the rise of ISIS.

It is a reminder that while terrible events or the heinous actions of extremists get clicks and headlines, they can often mask — not reflect — the reality of the world we live in. For those of us in New York City, we will never forget 9/11; but the greater tragedy for the nation was that we let it define us.

Michael A. Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.