There is no doubt that the September 11th terrorist attacks (or 9/11) changed the world. It spawned the War on Terror, the invasion of Afghanistan, the Department of Homeland Security, the USA PATRIOT Act, the war in Iraq, anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States, anti-American sentiment across the globe, Guantanamo Bay, mass surveillance of Americans by their own government...the list goes on and on. Now a whole post-9/11 generation is starting to grow up, and to them this is all they have ever known.
The events of that fateful day are still fresh in my mind almost as if it was yesterday. I was in high school in religion class (I went to a Catholic school) and we were told by the teacher that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. We wanted to learn more, but she insisted we finish class first. After that, things just got crazy, but enough about me, lets talk about changing history.
As alternate historians, we often speculate about how history would be different if some important historical event was changed. For some reason, we tend to picture worlds that are in many ways worse off than our own. Usually its because we take good outcomes, like the defeat of the Nazis or the end of the Soviet Union, and reverse them to create dystopias that are both entertaining and horrifying. So what happens if we take a bad outcome and reverse it? Would we get a better or worse world?
What would the world be like without 9/11? Thanks to the members of AlternateHistory.com and others for inspiring me to write this scenario.
I will start with the presidency of George W. Bush. In our timeline he will be remembered as a controversial leader, but what about in a world where 9/11 didn't happen? I do not buy the belief that without 9/11 he would never win his second term. He defeated Kerry by a much larger margin than he did Gore in 2000 and I personally blame the botched presidential campaign of the Democrats for whatever defeat they experienced in 2004.
In reality, Bush was a decent president who had to make some tough and unpopular decisions. He certainly was not the best president the United States ever had, but he is also not the worst and the country survived in spite of him. Without 9/11 he would have likely focused on domestic issues, though some of his more conservative policies might have failed without the strong support he received from the American people in the aftermath of 9/11. He would still have been reelected in 2004 by a much larger margin than our timeline with the Democrats putting up a sacrificial lamb, perhaps someone like Joe Lieberman.
His second term would not be as different from his first, though if a Hurricane Katrina happened as it did in our timeline (and the likelihood of that depends on how literal you take the butterfly effect) his administration would still suffer a black eye from that disaster and blemish his legacy as president. Perhaps Bush would try to distract people by having America take a more active role in the conflicts surrounding Israel, North Korea, Darfur or Somalia. Actual military intervention is likely only in Somalia or Sudan, but even then its a stretch.
American politics overall would be less radicalized and boring, with voters interested in moderate politicians and both parties moving to the center. The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street would never arise and libertarianism would remain a fringe ideology not taken seriously by Americans. There would be less gushing over political candidates on the cable news networks. People would still complain about the deficit, but without the massive spending caused by the War on Terror, things wouldn't be as bad (more on that later).
John McCain would have faced off against Hillary Clinton in 2008 and economic issues would likely be the deciding factor, but other issues like immigration would still be important. If Hillary is elected, she might try to offer Barack Obama a seat on the Supreme Court (or he may just stay a Senator) to stop him from challenging her position as party leader. If McCain is elected, his moderate policies may drive a wedge with the more conservative elements of his party, especially if he maintained his 2000 stances against flying the Confederate battle flag or opposing evangelist leaders that he once referred to as "agents of intolerance". Its difficult to speculate further about what would happen in 2012 and beyond at this point.
Either Clinton or McCain would have to deal with some sort of leak about mass surveillance of American citizens. War on Terror or not, as technology made communication easier and easier, it is frankly unlikely that the government would not try to spy on Americans. Frankly, the reason I think we haven't seen more outrage about the NSA and its spying is because most Americans just assumed the government was already spying on them. Having it confirmed doesn't really change the status quo.
Meanwhile, Rudy Giuliani would not have his reputation without 9/11 and would not have run for the Republican nomination in 2008. Michael Bloomberg may also have never been elected mayor of New York City. Sarah Palin would be unknown outside of Alaska. I would love to speculate on what happens in the 2012 or 2016 elections, but that far from the point of divergence only makes this more of a fantasy and less a counterfactual.
Outside the United States it is difficult to imagine how the world would be different. One could argue the United States would have better relations with world nations since they would not be building up their military, spying on their allies or projecting their power across the globe. Would this mean Russia and China would be more restrained in their interactions with their neighbors? Difficult to tell, but the US in this timeline would be more capable in waging a Cold War 2.0 rather than a War on Terror.
Certainly Saddam Hussein would have an even longer tenure as President of Iraq since, as Frank Harvey said in my interview with him, avoiding 9/11 was probably the only thing that could keep America out of Iraq in 2003. Then again, he may still fall from power if the Arab Spring still happened or else a civil war erupted. Many of the causes for that event would have existed without 9/11 and thus could still occur, even if it doesn't follow the exact timeline of events as we know them.
This means Islamist groups like ISIS could still arise and, incidentally, be more powerful in a world where the United States and its allies are not actively fighting terrorism. Some have argued, however, that America's actions post-9/11 have led to more converts to extreme Islamism, so perhaps in this world an alternate Arab Spring may actually allow for more democratic and moderate factions in the Middle East to prevail, such as in Tunisia. Either is possible, but which is the most plausible is still debatable.
As for Afghanistan, well the civil war there has been going on there since 1978 before the American intervention in our timeline and its unlikely to stop in this world without some sort of intervention.
The American economy would likely have been better off without all the spending on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. There may also be more corporate regulations, without 9/11 distracting people from Enron and other examples of corporate greed and mismanagement. The FBI may even focus more attention on combating white collar crime without terrorism being a major issue. Thus, with there being a lot of distrust of major corporations, cases like Citizens United v. FEC may have been decided differently.
Would the Great Recession have been avoided? Probably not, as recessions and depressions are common to the global economy and the causes of it would still be around, but perhaps it might not have been as bad. More money in the budget may even mean that some of the ideas floating around at time about direct aide to Americans may actually have gotten past the drawing board.
The New York Yankees would go on to win the 2001 World Series. Without 9/11, Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling do not get a week off to rest. As a result, the Arizona Diamondbacks would not go on to beat the San Francisco Giants by two games for the Division title. The San Francisco Giants lose to the St. Louis Cardinals, the Cardinals defeat the Atlanta Braves, and the Cardinals lose to the Yankees.
Meanwhile, Pat Tillman would never have left his football career to join the military and would still be alive today. Furthermore, no one hears "God Bless America" at baseball games, thus there are no ugly moments where people are thrown out of games for not standing up for the "national anthem".
You may also see a lot less praising of soldiers and veterans at football games.
Film and Television
There are so many films and television shows inspired by 9/11 or the events following it that it is impossible to list them all. Team America, United 93, Flight 93, Fahrenheit 9/11 and World Trade Center would have not been produced, while Jackie Chan's Nosebleed would have been. 24, Fringe, Third Watch, West Wing, Rescue Me and Battlestar Galactica would either have not been produced or would have been vastly different from what they were in our timeline. The Lord of the Rings would not have been as popular without the need to escape the horrors of the post-9/11 world, but they will still make a lot of money. Also the Hobbit may not be split up into three separate films.
Other films may be more popular than they were in our timeline. The controversy surrounding films like Big Trouble and Collateral Damage would not exist and they may even have experienced some box office success. Tim Allen could have had a more successful movie career and Arnold Schwarzenegger may never have left his film career to run for Governor of California. I have heard Democrats and Republicans bemoan "The Governator" and it would be interesting to see what would happen in one of America's wealthiest states if someone else was holding the reigns of power from 2003 to 2011.
Gritty, realistic remakes would also be less prevalent as the constant images of terrorism and war wouldn't be shown on the news networks. This may mean no Batman Begins or else a more campy version of the iconic comic character. Iron Man would also have a different origin story for Tony Stark and much of the Marvel Cinematic Universe would be different because of that since S.H.I.E.L.D. would be less influenced by the modern American government and military.
Images of the World Trade Center in film and television would be more prevalent and obviously wouldn't be removed from promotional material.
Dick Cheney would likely be more popular (or more obscure) in this alternate history, thus Stephen King does not use him as inspiration for the antagonist in Under the Dome. In fact, other works by Stephen King, like the The Dark Tower VI: Song of Susannah, would be different since there would no references to the terrorist attack.
As for alternate history, people would stop asking SM Stirling why he didn't reference 9/11 in Conquistador (if it is still published). Lavie Tidhar would also never publish the award winning Osama. Also the old cliche of always having terrorists blow up some building(s) in the 21st century, regardless of how far back the point of divergence is, would rarely if ever appear. Those who do use it in this timeline would be lauded for their originality.
Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey would likely have never been married, since they claim 9/11 brought them together. Their reality television show would never have been produced, Jessica's reputation for being dumb never materialized and both would be remembered for being singers, despite moving on to other projects.
Country music would also be different. The Dixie Chicks would not be boycotted by country fans for being anti-Bush and Toby Keith may not be as popular without 9/11 inspiring many of his famous songs.
Emo music would be very different as My Chemical Romance would likely not have formed since Gerald Way was motivated to start a band after 9/11. Green Day's American Idiot would not be released and the Broadway show it inspired would never be created. In fact Green Day may have disappeared entirely, being replaced by Sum 41, Blink 182 or some other pop/punk group.
DC Comics would never have Identity Crisis, as Dan DiDio said it was inspired in part by 9/11. If DC reboots their continuity in 2011, the new universe is far less paranoid and grim world then it is now. Frank Miller would never write Holy Terror and Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again would be slightly different. In fact, Miller may be an all around less controversial figure than he is in this timeline.
Meanwhile, Marvel would not have Civil War. I wish I could add more than that, but I have never been much of a Marvel comics fan.
Blogs would be less developed, without the politically charged climate of 9/11 to inspire authors to create their own blogs. Google News also would not have been created or else delayed, as the events of 9/11 convinced people we needed a quick way to search for the news.
Congress may never have cancelled construction of the F-22s, since America would likely continue with it's Cold War weapon mentality. Spending and development on drone technology may also be behind, but wouldn't be avoided altogether. Remote control aircraft aren't anything new and building ones big enough to pack heavy firepower doesn't require that much imagination.
With less government spending on wars, we may see a better funded NASA. The Space Shuttles would still be retired, but we would have had another program to take its place instead of relying on private contractors to get us into space. The timetable on returning to the Moon and reaching Mars may have an earlier date.
People may also have been more willing to construct larger skyscrapers, not being able to imagine a plane intentionally crashing into one, except only in the wildest pieces of fiction.
Muslim-Americans (and people perceived as Muslim) may still face discrimination to some extent, but the hate crimes and rhetoric they have heard from mainstream politicians since 2001 would not exist. If one group of Muslims chose to build a mosque or community center close to the World Trade Center, no one would bat an eye.
Of course, this is all my opinion. I could be very wrong about what a world without 9/11 would look like. What are your thoughts?
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Matt Mitrovich is the founder and editor of Alternate History Weekly Update, a blogger on Amazing Stories and a Sidewise Awards for Alternate History judge. When not writing he works as an attorney, enjoys life with his beautiful wife Alana and prepares for the day when travel between parallel universes becomes a reality. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Learn how you can support his alternate history projects on Patreon.