“Of all manifestations of power, restraint impresses men most.”
You’ve heard the platitude that hindsight is 20/20. It’s true enough and, though I’ve been a regular skeptic about what policymakers used to call the Global War on Terror, it’s always easier to poke holes in the past than to say what you would have done. My conservative father was the first to ask me what exactly I would have suggested on September 12, 2001, and he’s pressed me to write this article for years. The supposed rub is this: Under the pressure of that attack and the burden of presidential responsibility, even “liberals”—like me, I guess—would have made much the same decisions as George W. Bush and company.
Many readers may cringe at the thought, but former national security adviser and secretary of state Condoleezza Rice has to be taken seriously when she suggests that anyone in the White House on 9/11 would inevitably have seen the world through the lens of the Bush administration. I’ve long argued that just about every Bush-era policy that followed 9/11 was an unqualified disaster. Nevertheless, it remains important to ponder the weight piled upon a president in the wake of unprecedented terror attacks. What would you have done? What follows is my best crack at that thorny question, 16 years after the fact, and with the accumulated experiences of combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Taking It Personally
9/11 was an intimate affront to me. It hit home hard. I watched those towers in my hometown burn on televisions I could glimpse from my plebe (freshman) boxing class at West Point. My father worked across Church Street from Manhattan’s World Trade Center. Only hours later did I learn that he’d safely escaped on the last ferryboat to Staten Island. Two uncles—both New York City firemen—hopelessly dug for comrades in the rubble for weeks. Stephen, the elder of the two, identified the body of his best friend, Captain Marty Egan, just days after the attacks.
In blue-collar Staten Island neighborhoods like mine, everyone seemed to work for the city: cops, firemen, corrections officers, garbage men, transit workers. I knew several of each. My mother spent months attending wakes and funerals. Suddenly, tons of streets on the Island were being renamed for dead police and firefighters, some of whom I knew personally. Me, I continued to plod along through the typically trying life of a new cadet at West Point.