Friday, September 11, 2015

AltHistory Scenario #6: What if the September 11 Attacks Didn’t Happen?

Today I’ve decided to break one of the unwritten rules I had set for myself when I started this blog, namely to not touch any historical event after I was born (for those of who you have no idea what that is, well, my Twitter handle should give you an idea).

At least, I don’t want to make a scenario of events that are less than 30 years before the present. I have three reasons for this: it’s hard to realize the full historical significance of certain events the closer you are to them, either making them seem even bigger than they really were or downplaying it’s significance at the time; emotions regarding certain events are still fresh in everyone’s mind, and it’s difficult for writer and reader to set aside the emotions of the event and look at it from a more subjective viewpoint until time has passed; and it usually takes about 30 or more years before most information, especially government classified information, to be fully released, researched and presented, giving hugely skewed views of those events to other sources, such as eye-witness reports, news articles, hypothesis and sometimes even myths and fabrications.[1]

However, the 14th anniversary of the worst terrorist attack on American soil is most likely going to be the one exception to this rule, at least for right now. The attacks that are now known as 9/11 has had such a huge impact on the world, it’s hard to say if that even 30 years from now we will know the full scale and scope of what happened when Islamic extremists high jacked four commercial airliners, with two crashing into the New York landmarks of the Twin Towers, another into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and the forth going down in a field in Pennsylvania when the passengers tried to reclaim control of their plane.

Point of Divergence

There are two ways this could go about: either Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al-Qaeda, doesn’t sanction the attack, or somehow the FBI, CIA or some intelligence or law enforcement agency gets wind of a possible attack. The second scenario is the more likely in my opinion, so I will say that in mid summer, 2001, some of the hijackers are apprehended, and the plot is foiled. The news of supposed attacks on the US is made public, but much like the foiled Millennium Plot to blow up aircraft from Los Angeles on New Years Eve, it quickly leaves the headlines, and life resumes to normal.

What Happens Next?

There are several immediate effects that take place, not the least of which being that nearly 3000 people who would have died, either in the plane crashes or the collapse of the buildings, make it home that night, including hundreds of firefighters and policemen who’s heroics that day possibly saved many more. First of all, there is no economic downturn or recession as in after the 9/11 attacks. The attacks on New York resulted in a shutdown of the New York Stock Exchange until September 17, at which point major losses were reported: the Dow Jones Industrial Average lost over 14%, or close to $1.4 trillion dollars value in a week. Air travel would also continue as normal, without US airspace being closed, and the nervousness of passengers to actually fly in the months and years to come. However, the Great Recession of 2008 (a name I’m not sure will stick in 20 years time) will still happen, if deregulation that started under Ronald Regan and continued right up until the burst of the US housing market bubble continues as it does IRL.

The biggest change would be the lack of a War on Terror. No invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, and no the overthrow of the extremist Islamic Taliban government that provided shelter to Al-Qaeda. And without the new focus, or rather outright paranoia of the American people to protect themselves, their family and their nation from future terrorist attacks, the Department of Homeland Security wouldn’t be established. It’s really hard to see how without the War on Terror there could be the Iraq War (or the Second Gulf War, or the Invasion of Iraq… I don’t know if anyone really knows what to call that now). The reason for the war as given by the US, namely that dictator Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction, flaunting UN sanctions, or harboring terrorists - all of which has subsequently been discovered as false - would be insufficient to an American people who didn’t have such a jolt to the national conscience as 9/11 would provide.

If anything, without two partially successful wars (at least, in 2004) and the remnant of good-will after the 9/11 attacks, I’m unsure if George W. Bush would be second term president, though I’m pretty sure it would be another close one. “Dubya” wasn’t doing so well in the polls before 9/11, with a stagnating economy (no recession until 2008 though) and several gaffes and blunders, it’s hard to see how he may have won. However, I’m not sure if the political gridlock that has come to dominate Washington today would change at all. At the very least, it would be a couple more election cycles before the worst effects of the hyper partisan politics, such as threatened government shutdowns, Congress trying multiple times to repeal a president’s signature piece of legislation, or otherwise just obstruct the functioning of government. Now I’m not going to say which party will do it, as both the Republicans and the Democrats have done it when they were in control of one or both houses of Congress, and the President was another party.

In world affairs, the US wouldn’t have had both the sorrow and shared pain of 9/11 and the resulting overwhelming support for the invasion of Afghanistan, nor the ruining of that same goodwill in the Invasion of Afghanistan. If anything the US just continues on, the strongest nation in the world, but not yet involved in a Central Asian quagmire.

Now, would the US get involved in the Middle East, or Northern Africa, or somewhere else in the world at some point? Eventually, yes. The question is where, how, and why. Maybe it will be because of Arab nations attacking Israel. Maybe Russia under Vladimir Putin starts making moves on Ukraine. Maybe Afghanistan collapses after years of civil war and unrest. Maybe the Arab Spring breaks out in Egypt or Tunisia or Syria and results in Civil War. Maybe Boko Harram in Nigeria commits atrocities that galvanize the world into action. Maybe Iran finally does get the bomb. Any one of these possible scenarios would drag in the US, either as an interested party in maintining the status quo or spreading democracy, or the leader of a UN, NATO or “Coalition of the Willing” to militarily enforce actions that otherwise would not occur.


It’s really hard to say right now if this could have happened. The problem is not so much the lack of information regarding 9/11 but rather the lack of the right information. It has only been 14 years since the attacks, which is too soon to make a fully fleshed out scenario in this case. Events started on 9/11 are still happening today: the current Middle East crisis with ISIS is perhaps the biggest one today. It will take years, after ISIS, after George W. Bush, after Tony Blair, after Iraq, after Barack Obama, after Jon Stewart, after Vladimir Putin, after the 2008 Recession, after the political gridlock in the US, after a thousand other things that were all tied into the planning, execution, tragedy, recovery and revenge that came to a head on September 11, 2001 is either gone or, at least, far enough the in the rear view mirror for an alternate historian to really consider what happened.

The attacks of September 11, 2001, were a tragedy that will not be forgotten for decades to come, and not only in the US, but around the world. I was only nine when it happened, but all I could really remember of that day was after school, siting glued to the TV as the replay of the airplane crashing into the huge grey side of a building resulted in a massive fireball. I don’t remember teachers coming into the room crying, or all the kids being let out for recess while the adults and older kids watched the TV in the staff room, or being sent home early that day. I wasn’t old enough to realize what happened, and how the world was about to change. I didn’t know then about the thousands of Americans that landed in Gander, Newfoundland, and remained there for weeks as fears of another attack gripped America. I didn’t know that in just over a month, Tomahawk missiles and Special Ops troops would sweep into Afghanistan and overthrow a vicious regime. I didn’t know that soon tanks would roll across a land also known as Mesopotamia, the heart of human civilization, to overthrow another tyrant. I didn’t know that a few years later, on a stretch of land that straddles the US-Canada border known as the International Peace Garden, that I would see a memorial to the tragedy that included steel girders of the World Trade Center be established. I didn’t know that new rules would require me to get a passport to go twenty-five minutes south.

However, maybe because I was young and can barely remember the day will make it easier for me to write about it again, and do it from a perspective of having living through the effects of 9/11. In that way, history continues on, providing me and all the other Alternate Historians out their new topics to explore.

You just need to do it at the right time.

PS: I apologize for the lack of pictures today. I honestly didn't feel now is the right time for jokes for an article like this. Maybe in 2031.

[1] The two biggest examples I can think of for this off the top of my head involve two of my favorite historical subjects, the Titanic and World War Two. For years, it was assumed the Titanic sank in one piece, mostly due to the testimony of Second Officer Charles Lightoller, with those that believed it broke in two being either ignored or handwaved away. It was only in 1985, 73 years later, when the ship was discovered, that it was finally laid to rest that the Titanic broke apart. The second, even more amazing story was that, until 1975, most surviving German officers believed it was superior Allied strategy, mass production, manpower and/or sheer luck that resulted in their victory. Turns out that the Allies broke the “Enigma” code, the supposedly unbreakable cipher used by Nazi high command (as seen in the recent film The Imitation Game, and mentioned in my own published story, From Enigma to Paradox. The secret was so well hidden that it was only when the first “Top Secret” files of World War Two were released that anyone outside of a select few heard about it.


  1. Good words, but I think you're missing a key piece of the picture when it comes to Bush's presidency: he was a candidate who's focus first and foremost was on domestic politics, in fact running against the "nation building" he blamed on the Democrats. I've always felt the greatest unseen loss of the terrorist attacks was comprehensive immigration reform, which Bush was strongly pushing for prior to 9/11.

    Had he not gotten sidetracked by the pivot to terrorism and foreign affairs, I think it's very likely he'd have made immigration his key goal during a first term. Whether or not he'd have been successful is difficult to parse, seeing that everything changed so quickly, but I do think we'd have a vastly different Republican party now as a result of that debate, with the conversation more nuanced than it currently is on immigration reform. Had he been successful in pushing through legislation on that front, we'd have a vastly different appreciation for and understanding of him as a president. I don't claim he'd ever have been universally admired or seen as a brilliant leader, but neither would he have endured the huge antipathy he's known for today.

    1. Thank you for this. I will admit that I don't know as much about the presidency of George W. Bush, which I'm sure reflects in this article. I wasn't aware that one of his big priorities was immigration reform, at least before 9/11. It would be a huge change to the modern Republican Party, and one that may just take away some of the increasingly important Latino vote from Democrats. Thank you for the thought!

    2. If you'd like to read more about Bush and immigration, here are some articles that are good starting points:

      > "Why George W. Bush was right," (Washington Post:

      > "When Ted Cruz Helped Craft Bush's Immigration Reform Plan" (Atlantic:

      > "Once solid, the George W. Bush-Vicente Fox partnership faded after 9/11" (Dallas Morning News,