Terrorism on the Homefront

Updated September 14, 2021 | Infoplease Staff
—Borgna Brunner

The transition from the 42nd to 43rd president was troubled on both sides. George W. Bush was inaugurated on Jan. 20, 2001, following one of the most disputed presidential elections in the nation's history (2000 Election Chronology ). Scandal trailed his predecessor to the very end: on his final day in office, Bill Clinton struck a deal that gained him immunity from criminal liability in the Whitewater probe in exchange for admitting that he had given false testimony under oath during the investigation. His departure was further tarnished by a series of highly controversial last-minute pardons.

The top item on Bush's domestic agenda, a $1.6 trillion tax cut, was the subject of bitter partisan debate in Congress, with Democrats arguing that the bill heavily favored the rich and would squander the unprecedented budget surplus. The Senate eventually trimmed the tax cut to $1.35 trillion over 11 years, and Bush signed it into law on June 7. The tax-cut victory was somewhat marred by the defection of Vermont senator James Jeffords, who changed his party affiliation from Republican to Independent—a major blow for the president, since it resulted in the Democrats' gaining control of the Senate.

By the time Americans began receiving their tax rebate checks in August (up to $300 for individuals and $600 for married couples), the country's budget surplus had indeed withered. The Congressional Budget Office attributed this rapid change in the nation's fortunes to the slowing economy and the Bush tax cut. By the fall, most analysts believed that the country was heading toward a full-blown recession, the result of sluggish growth and the stock market plunge, which had been exacerbated by the repercussions of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Republicans proposed a stimulus plan that they hoped would infuse billions into the economy over the next year, primarily through tax breaks to businesses.

Missile Defense Shield

President Bush also championed an antimissile defense system, meant to intercept long-range missiles lobbed at U.S. shores. Opponents of the plan have argued that it is technologically unfeasible, astronomically expensive, and largely superfluous. The proposed missile shield strained relations with U.S. allies and former cold-war adversaries Russia and China, who feared that the system could spark a new arms race. Its implementation would require the U.S. to pull out of the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty (which bans missile defense), the basis for the last three decades of nuclear stability. But Russian president Vladimir Putin eventually expressed willingness to modify the ABM treaty if it also led to reductions in the nuclear arsenals of both countries. Sino-American relations, already shaky, had deteriorated in April after a standoff over a downed U.S. spy plane in Chinese territory, as well as the sale of arms to Taiwan later that month. China thus greeted the proposed missile shield with unequivocal hostility.

Foreign Policy

During his first seven months in office, Bush's foreign policy decisions were viewed by much of the world as starkly unilateralist. In addition to sounding the death knell on the ABM treaty, Bush refused to back a UN-proposed international criminal court and walked away from a conference to regulate the global small-arms trade. Most disturbing to the international community was the U.S.'s abandonment in March of the Kyoto treaty on global warming, which Bush contended would harm the economy. In July, 178 nations hammered out a modified and more realistic version of the treaty without the participation of the United States, the largest emitter of greenhouse gases (25%). The U.S. also rejected the biological weapons convention banning germ warfare, claiming that the proposed inspections would be too burdensome on the legitimate biotechnology industry. The administration also announced a new hands-off policy toward Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and put a sharp halt to the previous administration's nascent diplomatic overtures to North Korea, which in 2000 had been instrumental in narrowing the divide between the two Koreas.

September 11

The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11 irrevocably scarred the nation. That morning, two commercial planes, en route from Boston to Los Angeles, were hijacked and flown minutes apart into the north and south towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. Shortly afterward, another plane, en route from Washington, DC, to Los Angeles, crashed into the Pentagon. A fourth hijacked plane, headed from Newark to San Francisco, crashed in a field near Shanksville, Pa.—investigators have speculated that the plane's intended target was Washington, DC, and that passengers aboard the flight may have thwarted the hijackers. Both World Trade Center towers collapsed, and a section of the Pentagon was destroyed. All 266 passengers and crew aboard the planes were killed; total dead from the Trade Center and Pentagon were estimated in the thousands. The country reeled from the world's deadliest act of terrorism, which caused the largest single-day loss of life in American history.

Nineteen hijackers, all Islamic extremists, were identified, and within days the attacks were linked to Osama bin Laden, a millionaire fundamentalist Saudi whose stated goals are the destruction of the U.S., Israel, and the Saudi monarchy. After the bombings he issued a videotape praising the hijackers and announcing that “America will not live in peace before peace reigns in Palestine, and before all the army of infidels depart the land of Muhammad.” His extensive but loosely knit terrorist network, al-Qaeda (“the base”), which is believed to have operations in more than 60 countries, has been implicated in numerous terrorist acts against Americans. These include the bombings of U.S. barracks in Saudi Arabia, the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and the USS Cole in Yemen, among others.

Fighting Global Terrorism

Bush immediately shored up an international coalition to fight terrorism worldwide and demanded that Afghanistan's Taliban government, which has harbored bin Laden since 1996 and is host to al-Qaeda training camps, surrender the terrorists or risk military attack. In a televised address on Sept. 20, Bush warned Americans that the war against terrorism would be a lengthy campaign, involving covert action as well as air strikes that will not only target terrorists but the groups and governments that abet them. Following the speech, polls showed that the president's approval rating had soared to 90%.

On Oct. 7, after the Taliban repeatedly and defiantly refused to turn over bin Laden, the U.S. and its close ally Britain began air strikes against Afghan military installations and terrorist training camps. The immediate goal was to destroy Afghanistan's military resources and capture bin Laden and al-Qaeda members. “Today we focus on Afghanistan,” Bush contended, but “the battle is broader.” How much broader and in what way remained a matter for speculation. Differences within the Bush administration over its antiterrorism strategy rose almost immediately. Hawks such as Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz advocated expanding the military response to include strikes against Iraq because of its sponsorship of terrorism—despite the fact that there was no evidence of Iraq's involvement in the Sept. 11 bombings. Secretary of State Colin Powell, the administration's most dovish influence, has urged that a concert of military, diplomatic, intelligence, and financial tactics be engaged.

The Taliban government fell two months after the U.S. bombing began. In a dramatic turn five weeks into the conflict, the Northern Alliance, the militia of mujahideen fighting against the Taliban, aided by U.S. air support, managed with breathtaking speed to take the key cities of Mazar-i-Sharif and Kabul, the capital. (On Oct. 7, when the U.S. began bombing Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance had controlled just 10% of the country; by Nov. 13, it controlled more than 40%.) By the end of November, only the cities of Kandahar and Kunduz had not surrendered to the Northern Alliance. On Dec. 9, the Taliban regime collapsed entirely after fleeing their last stronghold, Kandahar, and giving up a final province. Their leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, however, remained at large, and Osama bin Laden was believed to be hiding somewhere in a cave complex in the mountains of Tora Bora.

The New Multilateralism

Bush has announced that the global war against terrorism “will be the focus of my administration from now on.” His new calling has already transformed his presidency from its domestic focus and narrowly defined foreign policy to one demonstrating a heightened appreciation for international coalition-building. The U.S. rapidly began repairing its neglected relations with the UN and resumed a more active diplomatic role in the Middle East. In October Bush delayed missile defense testing in an effort to shore up good will with Russia and other nations. As Colin Powell quipped in mid-October, “Nobody is calling us unilateral anymore . . . We're so multilateral, it keeps me up 24 hours a day.”

Terrorism on the Homefront

A new White House agency, the Office of Homeland Security, under former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge, was formed to coordinate a national strategy to safeguard the country against terrorism. Almost immediately a new menace surfaced: anthrax-contaminated mail, which was sent to major newspapers and television networks, as well as to mail facilities for the White House, Congress, the CIA, and the Supreme Court, causing temporary shutdowns. As the number of cases multiplied, the threat of bioterrorism further undermined the country's sense of security.

Other homeland security measures raised questions whether safety concerns were compromising civil liberties. Hundreds of foreigners were indefinitely detained following Sept. 11, most on immigration charges, a measure with which few Americans have quarrelled. But, echoing the practices of some of the world's most repressive governments, the Attorney General's office has refused to release even the names of these detainees. On Nov. 13, President Bush signed an order that called for foreigners charged with terrorism to be tried by military tribunals. Such tribunals, which could be held in secret and allow for admission of hearsay and illegally obtained information as evidence, and could require only a two-thirds majority for conviction, have less stringent standards regarding the burden of proof than civilian courts. Although opinion polls have shown that the vast majority of Americans support the idea of military tribunals, a vocal minority has pointed out that this suspension of due process goes against the very principles that the U.S. claims it is defending from terrorism.

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