Today in 2001: The September 11 attacks and their legal impact

September 11, 2015

Today in Legal History Fourth of JulyToday is perhaps one of the few days in the entire year which the date itself – September 11 – is saturated with historical significance.

And that is, of course, our topic for this installment of Today in Legal History: the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Some may be quick to note that the attacks, which began at 8:46 a.m. ET 14 years ago today, were not, strictly speaking, events of a legal nature.  While the attacks, which claimed the lives of nearly 3,000 people, were significant from political, military, and social points of view, the event doesn’t carry the same legal importance as, say, a Supreme Court ruling.

Nevertheless, as the saying goes, September 11, 2001, was the day that everything changed – and the legal world was no exception.

Although the number of legal changes that can be directly correlated to the September 11 attacks is considerable, the most significant law to emerge in the aftermath of the attacks is the USA PATRIOT Act, signed into law by President George W. Bush on October 26, 2001.  Among the changes wrought by the  far-reaching law are an expansion domestic enforcement against terrorism, a broadening of the definition of “terrorism,” the imposition of new anti-money laundering provisions, and an expansion of immigration enforcement.

Most recently, the Patriot Act has been making headlines because the U.S. government has been citing it, along with the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 (also passed in response to the September 11 attacks), as legal justification for its massive surveillance programs that have been targeting U.S. citizens.

In addition, because of September 11, Americans became familiar with the term “enemy combatant” (specifically, “unlawful enemy combatant”), which was used by the Bush administration to classify an alleged member of al Qaeda or the Taliban who was being held in U.S. custody indefinitely, without trial.  This classification allowed the administration to exempt these detainees from “prisoner of war” status under the Geneva Conventions, thereby also depriving them of certain rights under the Conventions.

The term is no longer in use, having been “retired” by the Obama administration in March of 2009, but the legal disputes arising from the matter have spawned at least five Supreme Court rulings: 2004’s Hamdi v. Rumsfeld ,Rumsfeld v. Padilla,  and Rasul v. Bush, 2006’s Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, and 2008’s Boumediene v. Bush.  Further, these legal disputes underscored the challenges faced in applying traditional international laws on warfare to non-state actors such as those who carried out the September 11 attacks.

Speaking of warfare, one of the more contentious results of the September 11 attacks was the Bush administration seeking – and Congress subsequently granting – legal authorization for the use of military force against Iraq.  As we all know, the Bush administration exercised this authority by invading Iraq in March of 2003.

While the politics of the actions leading up to the war may be a separate discussion, the fact remains largely undisputed that the September 11 attacks were cited as one of the primary justifications for the invasion, in spite of the fact that the country’s then-ruling government had nothing to do with the attacks.

The legal impact from the September 11 attacks goes beyond any laws that may have come about as a response; it can also be seen in how it prompted countless individuals, myself included,  to take an interest in law, politics, and the events of the world at large – and to attempt to effect change therein.

This impact may not become completely apparent for some time.  But that doesn’t make it any less significant.