Thursday, September 09, 2021

Twenty Years On


As the nation approaches the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon the media are running stories about that day and its aftermath. President Biden is planning to visit those two sites and Shanksville, Pennsylvania where the fourth hijacked plane crashed after passengers aborted the attack enroute to its target. It was a day of fear, tragedy and heroism. Certainly a stunning blow to post-Cold War America. Suddenly, we all felt vulnerable in a way that had never occurred during our decades-long stand-off with the Soviet Union. In the immediate aftermath, the media and politicians called it “a day that changed everything”. The nation was united in fear, patriotism and the demand for action.

As it turned out, the unity did not last and many of the changes were not for the better. Clearly some kind of response was warranted but that response turned into two decades of war that largely fulfilled Osama bin Laden’s objective of bleeding America. The Cost of War project estimates that US has spent $8 trillion on military and related expenditures since 2001 and over 929,000 people (overwhelmingly not Americans) have died as a result of our military operations since 2001 . In the process, the US abandoned core Constitutional principles such as the right to trial and prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment as we sanctioned extraordinary rendition, “enhanced interrogation and indefinite detention. At home, America turned into a militarized, surveillance state, all in the name of a “war on terror” and national security.

Attacking al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in response to the 9/11 attacks made some sense since that organization claimed responsibility for the attacks. Its most prominent leader and training camps were sheltered there by the Taliban government. But giving the president a near blank check to conduct military operations in pursuit of terrorists was not a wise idea. George W. Bush and the war hawks in his administration were more than willing to use that authority and distortions about 9/11 to launch a whole new war in Iraq just because they could. The lone member of Congress who voted against that authority, RepresentativeBarbara Lee, noted at the time that the nation was reeling in pain an grief from the 9/11 attacks and was not in a position to make rational, considered decisions. She urged the nation to stop and think before entirely abdicating its Constitutional responsibility and simply allowing the president to launch wars on his own. She was vilified for her vote. America wanted war and we got it.

What we got was two decades of war that weakened America more than the actual 9/11. What we did not get was an end to terrorist attacks. We got a “Homeland” and some measure of safety from international terrorism. We got increasing restrictions and intrusions on daily life. We also got years of wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, instability throughout the Middle East and beyond, a metastasizing terrorism threat throughout the world and ongoing “contingency operations” to stamp out those threats. In the meantime, domestic terrorism grew within our own borders and our cherished democracy fractured.

Our military response was not the only alternative available at the time. Some argued for pursuing terrorist organizations as criminal enterprises. Following the money and tracking connections were established techniques that had been successful against organized crime. It would have disrupted their activities and killed many fewer people. But that and any other alternative were shouted down in the paroxysm of patriotism and fear that followed 9/11.

So America went to war. First, it was the “Global War On Terror”. Then it was the “Long War”. And, finally, it became the “Forever War”. No one was actually certain about our actual goals but we were at war and simply would not give it up. And, as long as only a small percentage of families bore the brunt of combat and the US could put the wars on its credit card, Americans were willing to let it go on. Ultimately it became a festering wound on America.

Twenty years on, the 9/11 attacks continue to haunt America. It is right and proper to remember the day’s victims. It is also right and proper to remember how it all went wrong.  We can’t change history but we can change the future. The US may have the most powerful military in the world but we haven’t learned that not all international conflicts are amenable to military solutions.  


Vietnam.  Afghanistan.  Iraq.  Maybe we'll get it right next time.

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