Ten years have passed, and there is still much to grieve about September 11, 2001. There are the lives that were lost that terrifying and tragic day: the 2,977 victims in the towers and the Pentagon and on the planes; and the 415 law enforcement officers and firefighters killed, public workers who were justly celebrated at the time as heroes—an impulse we would do well to remember today, as their counterparts are pilloried as pension gluttons and public service is casually denigrated as government bloat.
Lost, too, was the chance for a politics built around the kind of social solidarity embodied by those first responders and expressed by the society so moved by their sacrifice. Instead, thanks largely to the administration of George W. Bush, we got a politics of fear that helped launch a long “war on terror,” which in turn gave us a lost decade of American life.
If that sounds melodramatic, consider a few figures: 4,442 American soldiers dead in Iraq, 1,584 in Afghanistan. As of March, $1.25 trillion spent to destroy and then fail to rebuild and stabilize those countries, a cost that has crippled our capacity to respond to an economic crisis that has devastated the American working and middle classes and reverberated throughout the world. Weighing on our collective conscience, also, are hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis, tens of thousands of dead Afghans, millions displaced—the overwhelming majority of whom had nothing to do with Al Qaeda’s heinous crimes on 9/11. To this, add a legacy of distrust, anger and grievance against the United States that will persist for years to come.
To salvage something from this lost decade, we should at least try to draw the right lessons from it.
First, although some measures to guard against acts of terrorism and to destroy Al Qaeda were of course necessary, our large-scale military efforts have been, at best, largely irrelevant to the goals of achieving justice and keeping us safe. Osama bin Laden, like Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, head of Al Qaeda operations, was hiding not in some contested part of Pakistan directly ensnared in the Afghan War but in the heart of that country, in bin Laden’s case just thirty-five miles north of Islamabad, steps from Pakistan’s top military academy. The lesson here is that we do not have a military threat that requires us to defend the Karzai government in Afghanistan but a political challenge that lies in getting the Pakistani authorities to cooperate in curtailing the activities of violent Islamist groups. In this regard, the war in Afghanistan long ago became counterproductive.
Second, we have not so much won in the “war on terror” as Al Qaeda has lost because its extremist ideology has little if any appeal to Arab and Muslim societies, especially to the new generation in Egypt and Tunisia that has taken to the streets for democracy, jobs and justice.
Third, our greatest defense against terrorism has been our democratic institutions and our tradition of religious and ethnic tolerance. At times over the past decade, as with the passage of the Patriot Act, we have seen those institutions and ideals compromised.
President Obama was elected in part because he appealed to our better post-9/11 selves—the selves personified by the first responders. He promised to respect civil liberties not only because it would keep us safe—“There are no shortcuts to protecting America,” he said—but because it is right. That is something else to grieve: as David Shipler observes in this issue, President Obama may have come too soon in the historical cycle to fulfill his own promise.