WASHINGTON — It’s been ten years — a long and confusing decade — since jihadists committed one of history’s great atrocities on American soil. The 9/11 attacks were so shattering, so damaging, so terrifying that I desperately want to draw some profound lesson from the nation’s response to them.
I want to salvage some meaning from the aftermath, to claim some bright rainbow beaming over the wreckage. Alas, I cannot. The last decade has revealed an America more fearful, more xenophobic and more easily misled than I had believed.
The jihadists commandeered jetliners and murdered nearly 3000 people. They shattered families, cost the economy hundreds of billions and provoked widespread panic among the citizenry. But al-Qaida didn’t shred the U.S. Constitution or launch an unprovoked war. Osama bin Laden didn’t trample longstanding alliances, damage our reputation abroad or strengthen Iran. We accomplished those things ourselves.
Just four months ago, President Obama sent a highly-skilled team of warriors to finally confront the man who ordered the mass murder of civilians. We did, at long last, “bring justice to our enemies,” in the words of Obama’s predecessor. Indeed, al-Qaida has been decimated by Obama’s relentless attacks with unmanned, but deadly, drones.
But those victories would be more satisfying if they had not come after years in which we casually tossed aside our moral authority in a frenzy of torture, secret prisons and regime change. If there is to be any final reckoning, it has to take account of the ways in which we allowed primal fears and political cynicism to overcome reason after the attacks.
In the days and months immediately after the terrorists struck, I believed we would not only defeat al-Qaida but also show the world, once again, a proud example of a nation courageous and just even under duress. Americans prayed together, saluted the flag together and committed individual acts of courage and kindness. There were countless expressions of resilience and resolve.
President George W. Bush rightly launched a war against the Taliban — jihadists who had brutally taken over Afghanistan and provided al-Qaida a safe haven. He had no choice but to show them their attack would not go unanswered.
But the Bush-Cheney regime had already launched another war — a secretive and unprincipled attack on the principles of American jurisprudence and human rights. The regime’s minions detained men without trial and tortured them; kidnapped persons and shipped them off to secret prisons; wrote dense legal briefs arguing that the president — like a dictator — could do whatever he pleased. Whenever a brave journalist or human rights activists uncovered and publicized those despicable acts, he or she was denounced as a traitor or appeaser.
By the fall of 2002, with the invasion of Afghanistan barely begun, Bush and Cheney turned to Iraq, a nation ruled by a despot, to be sure, but one who had nothing to do with 9/11. While the public was skeptical at first, most were finally persuaded by the barrage of lies coming from the White House — including the insistence that Saddam Hussein had serious links to al-Qaida. We became belligerent, badgering the French, for example, for refusing to go along. Remember “Freedom Fries?”
Some eight years after that invasion, the death toll of U.S. troops in Iraq approaches 5,000, while the casualty count is in the tens of thousands. We may never properly account for all the dead and wounded Iraqis. Iran is stronger because we deposed Saddam, its most bitter enemy.
We have spent as much in Iraq as we spent on the much-derided stimulus bill. Billions of dollars in cash shipped overseas have never been accounted for. Just try to imagine that Obama had sent billions of dollars in cash to, say, Michigan, and it had simply disappeared. Can you hear the outrage?
Americans eventually soured on Iraq, of course, but we’ve turned the page without acknowledging our complicity in that misadventure. The torture, the detentions and the war-mongering were all done in our name. And we supported those things because we were told they were necessary to keep us safe.
We didn’t want to look too closely, question too much or take any responsibility. And we still don’t. We want to forget about it, move forward, gain “closure.” And learn nothing that might keep us from losing our heads the next time.
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