What if 9/11 never happened?

That’s the question New York magazine poses to several prominent thinkers in its September 5-year 9/11 anniversary cover story. As you might expect, many of the figures–from Rev. Al Sharpton to Doris Kearns Goodwin–assume that, were it not for al Qaeda’s attacks on the United States, the country would not be at war in Iraq ...

That's the question New York magazine poses to several prominent thinkers in its September 5-year 9/11 anniversary cover story. As you might expect, many of the figures--from Rev. Al Sharpton to Doris Kearns Goodwin--assume that, were it not for al Qaeda's attacks on the United States, the country would not be at war in Iraq today. Others, such as Andrew Sullivan and Ron Suskind, argue that Osama bin Laden's attacks were only just a matter of time. If September 11 hadn't been the date seared in people's memory, it would have been Oct. 23, 2006, or some other day in which "we finally slipped into the reality of the world many of us have feared for several years now," writes Sullivan. Images like the one to the right would be inevitable. 

One common thread: The overwhelming belief that George W. Bush would not be president today. Given that the 2004 campaign was so focused on post-9/11 national security issues, Bush's domestic agenda would have weighed much more on voters' minds. Most of the essayists think that would have cost him the election. 

It's speculative, to be sure. But counterhistory has its place, even if only as an intellectual exercise. Coincidentally, FP's cover story in September/October argues that the pre-9/11 world isn't much different from the one we're living in today. 

That’s the question New York magazine poses to several prominent thinkers in its September 5-year 9/11 anniversary cover story. As you might expect, many of the figures–from Rev. Al Sharpton to Doris Kearns Goodwin–assume that, were it not for al Qaeda’s attacks on the United States, the country would not be at war in Iraq today. Others, such as Andrew Sullivan and Ron Suskind, argue that Osama bin Laden’s attacks were only just a matter of time. If September 11 hadn’t been the date seared in people’s memory, it would have been Oct. 23, 2006, or some other day in which “we finally slipped

into the reality of the world many of us have feared for several years now,” writes Sullivan. Images like the one to the right would be inevitable. 

One common thread: The overwhelming belief that George W. Bush would not be president today. Given that the 2004 campaign was so focused on post-9/11 national security issues, Bush’s domestic agenda would have weighed much more on voters’ minds. Most of the essayists think that would have cost him the election. 

It’s speculative, to be sure. But counterhistory has its place, even if only as an intellectual exercise. Coincidentally, FP‘s cover story in September/October argues that the pre-9/11 world isn’t much different from the one we’re living in today. 

Kate Palmer is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy.

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