On this 20th anniversary of September 11, 2001, the attacks and their political aftermath have receded into the distance: an important historical event at the start of the 2000s, long before Obama, the Tea Party, Trump, and the pandemic. But what if it had never happened? How might the United States be different if the events of 9/11 had never taken place?
Both Rudy Giuliani and George W. Bush would have had fewer opportunities to play the swaggering hero on a world stage, and Bush would not have declared, on September 12, 2001, a generalized war on terrorists, with the support of the United Nations Security Council. Without the War on Terror, the Department of Homeland Security would likely never have been created; the Border Patrol and ICE wouldn’t have become semi-autonomous paramilitaries; state and local police departments would have less military grade weaponry and surveillance equipment; and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq might not have happened. Without the War on Terror, Trump’s White nationalist rhetoric—from the “birther” smears he used to launch his political career, to his campaign promise to expel Muslim and Black migrants—might have gotten him marginalized, rather than elected.
In New York City before 9/11, there was a vibrant, multiracial, people of color-led movement against police brutality in response to a series of police killings, but after the attacks, protests against law enforcement were silenced for years. Had 9/11 never happened, the NYPD might have been reined in rather unleashed, perhaps changing police conduct nationwide.
Instead, in the aftermath of 9/11, three interactive political processes began which may have laid the groundwork for the surge in far-right organizing and power that became visible after the election of President Obama. The first was the valorization of law enforcement; the second, closely related, was the deliberate fostering of Islamophobia and a generalized fear of immigrants; and third, the U.S. initiated two wars which combined retribution with a crusade to save Americans, Muslim women, and perhaps all of Western civilization. These three developments were (and are) deeply interconnected, as Islamophobia and border anxieties fueled militarized policing domestically as well as war in Afghanistan and Iraq. The militarized masculinities of law enforcement and crusading war reinforced each other within the broader U.S. culture, and continue to reverberate today across the Far Right, from violent street gangs like the Proud Boys to mobilized misogynist movements like the incels.
While there was no shortage of critical analysis of post-9/11 politics and discourse, from Islamophobia and wars to “save the American way of life” to generalized anti-immigrant politics and White nationalism, there has been less attention to how these different strands came together to create an environment that not only normalized elements of far-right ideologies but also strengthened contexts known for far-right recruiting and network-building.
The January 6 insurrection drew attention to the extent of law enforcement and military participation in far-right movements, but this has a long and well-established history in the United States. If we take that history seriously, as we should, then we need to consider the ways in which the political and cultural response to 9/11 created nearly ideal conditions for far-right network building both institutionally, in military and law enforcement contexts, and culturally through the deliberate fostering of fear of outsiders and non-Americans determined to undermine “our” values and culture. In 2002, Attorney General John Ashcroft justified new border controls by saying, “our enemy’s platoons infiltrate our borders, quietly blending in… They move unnoticed through our cities, neighborhoods, and public spaces… Their camouflage is … common street clothing.” Trump echoed that rhetoric in his 2016 campaign when he positioned immigrants as a hidden, criminal threat, and it continues to reverberate today as the Border Patrol and ICE treat desperate asylum seekers as a threat to national security, and right-wing politicians and media falsely blame migrants for importing COVID to the U.S.
The Bush administration consistently justified a massive expansion of domestic surveillance, border control and law enforcement, as well as two wars on Muslim-majority countries, through open promotion of an existential form of xenophobia. Resources were poured into two institutions, the military and law enforcement, with long-standing, well-documented ties to far-right movements and beliefs, while national leaders drew upon images and rhetoric that fueled White nationalist perspectives. These dynamics returned under Trump, although the overt rhetorical focus largely shifted from Muslims to Latin Americans as the source of threat.
It would be difficult to come up with a more fertile environment for spreading far-right perspectives and building networks, which could then begin to mobilize more consciously when Obama’s election shifted the public discourse and representation. The Obama administration continued all the key elements of the global War on Terror, including surveillance and criminalization of Muslim communities in the U.S., which created a sharp juxtaposition between progressive imagery and ongoing policies based in racist nationalism. In addition, in 2009, the FBI office most attuned to the threat posed by White supremacist movements was gutted under Republican pressure. The combination may have been a gift to far-right movements: financial and ideological resources continued to flow to institutions conducive to far-right recruitment while the culture shifted in ways that created a sense of loss or threat to traditional White and right-wing perspectives. The rise in far-right violence starting around 2007 and increasing sharply in 2013, largely fell outside the definition of “terrorism” used by the FBI even as local law enforcement in many parts of the country came to see right-wing movements as far more of a threat than Islamic jihadists. The level of far-right violence in 2020 was the highest on record, and the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol was only one of 11 far-right attacks that month.
We can never know what the world would be like if the attacks of 9/11 had never taken place, but the real purpose of counter-factual thought experiments is to see the present in a slightly new way. This one suggests we need to pay more attention to the connections between the political and cultural response to 9/11 and the more recent resurgence of far-right organizing and violence, including the election of Donald Trump.
As I write this, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the Taliban’s conquest of Kabul, has been compared to the fall of Saigon, the last official U.S. military defeat. The end of the Vietnam War sparked substantial far-right organizing among veterans who felt betrayed, even though many of them were draftees, conscripted into a fight they had no right to refuse. Today’s veterans were volunteers who signed up during a time of heightened nationalism amid two wars to “defend the homeland.” That suggests we are looking at a potentially far more dangerous situation among vets who volunteered to serve in a crusade that has now been implicitly declared a failure by the man who displaced Trump.
 “Fighting on Two Fronts: A Chronology,” Frontline, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/campaign/etc/cron.html.
 Tami Gold, “Every Mother’s Son,” https://tamigold.co/films/every-mothers-son/; “More than 200 arrested in protest of New York City police shooting,” CNN, March 24, 1999, http://edition.cnn.com/US/9903/24/diallo.protest/index.html.
 For example: Mustafa Bayoumi, “Being Young, Muslim and American in Brooklyn,” in Linda Herrera and Asef Bayat (eds), Being Young and Muslim: New Cultural Politics in the Global South and North (Oxford University Press, 2010); Nancy Ehrenreich, “Masculinity and American Militarism,” Tikkun (2002) 17(6) pp 45-48; Jamie Winders, “Bringing Back the (B)order: Post-9/11 Politics of Immigration, Borders, and Belonging in the Contemporary US South,” Antipode, December 2007, DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8330.2007.00563; Kyle Kusz, “From NASCAR Nation to Pat Tillman: Notes on Sports and the Politics of White Cultural Nationalism in Post-9/11 America,” Journal of Sport and Social Issues, vol 31 2007; Adam Liptak, “Civil Liberties Today,” The New York Times, September 7, 2011, https://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/07/us/sept-11-reckoning/civil.html.
 Kathleen Belew, Bringing the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America (Harvard University Press, 2019); Naomi Braine, “The Long and Tangled History of Law Enforcement and Right-Wing Violence,” Political Research Associates, January 25, 2021, https://www.politicalresearch.org/2021/01/25/long-and-tangled-history-law-enforcement-and-right-wing-violence.
 “Attorney General Prepared remarks on the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System,” June 6, 2002, https://www.justice.gov/archive/ag/speeches/2002/060502agpreparedremarks.htm.
 Jamie Winders, “Bringing Back the (B)order: Post-9/11 Politics of Immigration, Borders, and Belonging in the Contemporary US South,” Antipode, December 2007. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8330.2007.00563.x; Mustafa Bayoumi, “Being Young, Muslim and American in Brooklyn,” in Linda Herrera and Asef Bayat (eds), Being Young and Muslim: New Cultural Politics in the Global South and North (Oxford University Press, 2010).
 Kyle Kusz, “From NASCAR Nation to Pat Tillman: Notes on Sports and the Politics of White Cultural Nationalism in post-9/11 America,” Journal of Sport and Social Issues, vol 31 2007.
 Naomi Braine, “Terror Network or Lone Wolf? Disparate Legal Treatment of Muslims and the Radical Right,” The Public Eye, Spring 2015; Heidi Beirich interview with Daryl Johnson, “INSIDE THE DHS: FORMER TOP ANALYST SAYS AGENCY BOWED TO POLITICAL PRESSURE,” Intelligence Report, Southern Poverty Law Center, 2011 Summer Issue, https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/intelligence-report/2011/inside-dhs-former-top-analyst-says-agency-bowed-political-pressure.
 Seth Jones and Catrina Doxsee, “The Escalating Terrorism Problem in the United States,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 17, 2020, https://www.csis.org/analysis/escalating-terrorism-problem-united-states.
 Naomi Braine, “Terror Network or Lone Wolf? Disparate Legal Treatment of Muslims and the Radical Right,” The Public Eye, Spring 2015.
 Robert O’Harrow, Jr., Andrew Ba Tran, and Derek Hawkins, “The rise of domestic extremism in America,” The Washington Post, April 12, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/interactive/2021/domestic-terrorism-data/.
 Kathleen Belew, Bringing the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America (Harvard University Press, 2019).