The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were spectacular, riveting, grim, costly and searing. The shock that they caused reverberated throughout the world. What happened in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania ended the lives of thousands of people and changed the lives of many more. But they did not change the world.
Instead, they illuminated important features of the world in which we lived before Sept. 11 and in which we continue to live today. In the long perspective of history, that is likely to be their enduring significance.
That world is defined by the supremacy of Western ideas about the proper organization of economic and political life and the conduct of foreign policy. Sept. 11 and its aftermath illustrate three of its important features: the global consensus in favor of free-market economics; the fading of war on the colossal scale on which it has been waged in the past; and the absence of any alternatives to these ideas. Societies raise their grandest monuments to what their cultures value most highly. As the tallest buildings in a city noted for tall buildings, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were certainly monumental. They were the equivalent for the 21st-century United States of the great pyramid of Giza in ancient Egypt and the Cathedral of Chartres in medieval France. The institution the World Trade Center symbolized, and to which it was dedicated, was the free market, the central activity of which is trade.
The market system enjoys a commanding position outside as well as within the United States, and the Sept. 11 attack also symbolized its global status. The buildings destroyed were named, after all, not simply for trade but for world trade.
People from more than 80 different countries died in the attacks. Most of them worked for firms concerned with aspects of finance. Concentrated in lower Manhattan, the financial industry is the most cosmopolitan in the world because its product, money, is more portable and more widely used than any other. From the tip of Manhattan the money on which international commerce and industry depends is distributed to every continent. The World Trade Center thus embodied the networks of commercial and financial exchanges that by 2001 had spread all over the planet. In choosing it as their target, the terrorists perversely dramatized the supremacy of the free market.
In the past, a blow to the international system's strongest power would have been welcomed by its rivals. In the wake of Sept. 11, however, every significant government in the world declared its support for the United States. They opted for this course because they all supported the market-dominated world order that had come under attack and of which the United States served as the linchpin. All saw the free market as the path to what had become, in the 21st century, an overriding goal in all nations and cultures: the creation of wealth. There was virtually no country that neither received nor hoped to receive capital from the New York financial community.
The attacks on Washington and New York were acts of war, and the war they inaugurated, the American war against terrorism, became the first war of the new century. The American government dispatched forces to Afghanistan to root out the terrorists based there and to overthrow and replace the government that harbored them.
Yet the war against terrorism illustrates one way in which the 21st century is actually more peaceful - or at least less warlike - than preceding eras. For the first war of the 21st century was unlike any of the great wars of modern history. The conflicts of the past pitted mighty sovereign states against one another, all of them seeking control of territory. They were waged by vast armies, which clashed in great battles in which the fate of great nations and huge empires hung in the balance. In the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, when the United States and the Soviet Union confronted each other with nuclear weapons, the fate of the entire planet, of the human race itself, seemed to be at stake.
By these standards the campaign against terrorism scarcely qualified as a war at all. The United States conducted a campaign of aerial bombardment and modest mopping-up operations on the ground in Afghanistan. Waging the war, the aim of which was to protect the citizens of the United States and other countries against terrorist attacks, involved relying not only on armed forces but also on intelligence services, local law enforcement agencies, border guards and customs and immigration officials, as well as on public health systems. The Pentagon is not the only nerve center of the American campaign against terrorism and perhaps not even the most important one. The Sept. 11 attacks and their aftermath thus illustrate another defining feature of the world of the 21st century: the transformation, or at least the dramatic devaluation, of war - the age-old practice that, for most of recorded history, had done more to shape international relations than any other.
They reflect a third feature of the world of the 21st century as well: the staying power of the dominant Western ideas. The terrorists clearly opposed the Western-dominated world order, and sought to overturn it. They were hardly the first people to pursue this ambition. In the past, those who had challenged the existing order of things had equipped themselves with alternative programs for the organization of political and economic life and presented them to the world. The slogan of the French Revolution expressed its aims: liberty, equality, fraternity. The revolutionaries of the 19th century who drew their inspiration from that great upheaval pursued concrete goals, which they ultimately achieved: the end of monarchical rule, the promulgation of constitutions, and the establishment of nation-states in place of multinational empires.
The revolutionaries of the 20th century also had a slogan: "Workers of the world, unite!" - and a program: the abolition of private property and the installation in power of Communist parties. Communist revolutionaries had a powerful effect on the history of the 20th century because they gained control of one of the world's major countries - Russia. And for part of the 20th century Russian Communism, like German fascism, enjoyed significant economic and military success.
The terrorists of Sept. 11, by contrast, are unable to duplicate Communism and fascism's destructive achievements. Unlike their predecessors, they acted in the name not of universal principles but of a fanatical strain of Islam far removed from the precepts of the great Muslim civilizations of history. They have no prospect of winning control of a major country. And insofar as the fundamentalist Islam that they espouse constitutes a political program, it has already been tried and failed - in both Iran and Afghanistan.
In the wake of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called Dec. 7, 1941, "a date that will live in infamy." So it will be with Sept. 11, 2001. But here the similarity between the two traumatic surprise attacks on American soil ends. The earlier one propelled the United States into the greatest war in history, at the end of which the politics and economics of the planet and the American role in them had changed almost beyond recognition. By contrast, while the attacks of Sept. 11 provide a vivid example of the formidable dangers that the world of the 21st century harbors, in the wake of those attacks our world remains, in its essential features, what it was before.
Michael Mandelbaum, a professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, is author of the just-published "The Ideas That Conquered the World: Peace, Democracy and Free Markets in the Twenty-first Century," from which this essay is adapted.