Today is the 20-year anniversary of 9/11. I well remember the horror and anger I felt as I watched over and over the planes crashing into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. America had been directly attacked! Over 3,000 civilians had been murdered! I supported the War on Terror. But 20 years later I have to wonder whether the War on Terror served its purpose and at what cost.
In the aftermath of 9/11, the Authorization of Use of Military Force (AUMF), the legislation that sanctioned the use of our military services against those responsible for the attacks passed with only ONE vote against it. That lone Congresswoman, Barbara Lee, when asked why she voted against the AUMF, quoted her preacher, saying, “as we act, let us not be the evil we deplore.”
This wise counsel was no match for the intense nationalism that gripped our country. Terrified by the prospect of further attacks, we Americans overwhelmingly supported President Bush’s War on Terror. The 9/11 era had begun.
Our National Security policy became centered on counterterrorism and our politics became dominated by the politics of fear. Before 9/11, Bush opposed the concept of nation building. After 9/11, Bush launched the War on Terror. He ordered the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq but also signed off on counterterrorism initiatives in 85 countries, to train and equip foreign governments to counter regional terror threats. Politically, Bush had to respond to the largest direct attack on American soil, but the politics of fear caused the the response to be out of proportion to the attack. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were largely retaliatory and came at a great cost to civilian lives. Domestically as well, after 9/11 Bush made out of proportion policy changes. The AUMF had already given the President unparalleled abilities to wage and declare wars, but then Congress passed the Patriot Act, reorganized 22 Federal Agencies, created the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and extended the scope of the National Security Agency (NSA.) I certainly agree that some of these changes were necessary in light of 9/11. However, legislators, politically afraid to be seen as anti national security, allowed our government to operate without proper oversight. This allowed our government to abuse their new powers. Given the false choice of security or privacy, opting for mass surveillance seemed to be the right choice. But was it?
Put more bluntly, was the War on Terror successful? Evaluated only on its original objective, to eliminate the global threat of terrorism, it has been a relative success. Although there have been large-scale attacks on Western countries since 9/11 the threat of radical Islamic terrorism to Americans is relatively low today. Our invasion of Afghanistan largely neutralized the threat of Al Qaeda and although the Taliban have come back to power they have never conducted an attack on American soil. Targeted drone strikes against the Islamic State (ISIS) has also greatly diminished its threat. So if our country had stuck to its original objectives then the War on Terror could be considered successful.
But our nation building exercises in Afghanistan and Iraq were largely unsuccessful. America invested incredible resources and manpower into extended conflicts in both nations but failed to implement any durable changes. In fact, the backlash to American interventions created distrust and disdain at home and abroad. That backlash fueled partisan divides, emboldened jihadi recruitment and tarnished our national image. While it is an important truth that our government has prevented another large-scale domestic attack, it did so at a significant cost to the Nation and its citizens.
The 9/11 era domestically is characterized by mass surveillance. The Patriot Act opened the door, the FISA Amendments Act walked through the opened doorway and gave the NSA nearly unchecked authority to collect data on domestic phone calls, text messages and emails under the premise of keeping tabs on foreign nationals suspected of terrorism. Not only is this unconstitutional, it is also ineffective. The effectiveness of the mass surveillance state is its ability to raise the level of fear among its citizens and their communities. Our suspicion of one another enables extremists on both sides of the isle to justify domestic acts of violence.
But it took the human rights allegations surrounding Guantanamo Bay to force our government to turn its moral judgments inward. By then our country was internationally largely seen as hypocritical, while at home our never ending wars had lost much of their credibility. This double whammy hampered our ability to respond to global emergencies and enabled countries like Russia and China to justify their own human rights violations. Even worse our record motivated other countries to follow our playbook. Egypt is a good example. Their excessive response to citizen protests catalyzed the Arab Spring, leading to increased instability in Syria prompting the rise of ISIS. Likewise, China and Russia were using our actions to justify tactics that consolidated their own spheres of influence making them significant security threats to our country.
The War not only cost us international and domestic credibility, it cost us trillions of dollars. The monetary costs of the War on Terror are far from over. They will continue to rise as we fulfill our obligations to veterans, lenders, and allies. The human cost of the war is impossible to calculate. We can add up the lives lost, refugees generated, and livelihoods disrupted but that doesn’t begin to account for people’s pain and suffering. Another overlooked cost is lost opportunities. We last ran a federal surplus in 2001, because we relied on deficit spending to finance the War over the next two decades. Imagine what else the US could have done with those lost resources. Lost opportunities.
We have ended our 20 year invasion of Afghanistan but the 9/11 era is not over. We are plagued with partisan divides and its politically charged rhetoric of fear. This has given birth to a number of right-wing extremist groups across our nation, who feel justified in attacking minorities in alleged defense of American values. Domestic terrorism is now our biggest threat.
Think how millions of Americans would have been better served and protected if the money used to finance the War had instead been diverted to areas like healthcare and education. Think how different it would be today if public officials had not allowed their focus on the threat of radical Islamic terrorism to hamper their response to domestic challenges.
The 9/11 era and its War on Terror has had the unintended consequence of taking away the moral high ground on which our country used to stand. In the end, as Congresswoman Lee warned, America, in fighting fire with fire, may have unwittingly become the very evil it sought to destroy.
“as we act, let us not be the evil we deplore.”
From Jim Kenaston: Thanks very much for sharing this thoughtful and insightful reflection.