Now we can start to look back at 9/11, and the events that followed it, with a more historical, critical eye. We’re no longer “in the moment”, at least most of us aren’t. So we therefore have some perspective and can talk about what we did right and what we did wrong.
What we did right
Invading Afghanistan was a hard choice in many ways. But we did right by doing so. We toppled an insanely repressive government, knocked al-Qaeda down to the point where they’re basically just four guys in a truck, and killed the mastermind behind 9/11, though he was in Pakistan, not Afghanistan. By any measure, our involvement there was justified and reasonable (and arguably too late, as I’d been going on about the Taliban since at least 1999). The outcome hasn’t been perfect, but it has generally been acceptable.
Creating a unified intelligence body in the form of the Department of Homeland Security was also a good idea, since it facilitated communications and the like. I have several problems with it, starting with the “Amerika Uber Alles” use of the word “Homeland”, but I’ll get to those problems in the next section. Speaking of…
What we did wrong
Yep, only two things we did right, and one of those is tainted with a bit of “well, also…”. But moving on.
Torturing prisoners was, without a doubt, the worst, stupidest thing we did as a result of 9/11. It is a fundamentally un-American act, and beneath any civilized nation. If it actually worked, I could almost, almost, justify it. But it doesn’t. Instead it stained us in the eyes of the world, made for a great terrorism recruitment tool and removed us from the moral high-ground regarding torture, as well as other abuses.
Holding people prisoner without charges or trial, in some cases for longer than a decade, is another fundamentally un-American act we engaged in. We were claiming these people were so gosh darn dangerous that we couldn’t even give them trials, or treat them like war criminals. Never mind that we managed to try Nazi war criminals (you know, people who started a war that killed millions upon millions of people), and they were even fair trials, no. Somehow terrorists are worse than the likes of Hermann Goering.
Meekly submitting to having our rights removed in the name of the “War on Terror”. We now live in a country where two guys kill three people and we accept the subsequent shut-down of a major American city and military-style police officers going door-to-door searching people’s houses without reasonable suspicion or warrants. As this article points out (and I highly recommend reading it), if someone killed three people in an office building and then went running out into the world, the police reaction would be far more subdued, as would the media reaction. That isn’t even getting into things like communications monitoring.
The massive expansion of the surveillance state is another real problem. Creating what should have been called the Department of Domestic Security was a reasonable idea. Giving them the level of power that they have was not. They should just be a clearing-house for intelligence sharing between the CIA, FBI, NSA and other government organizations. Instead they’re basically an entity unto themselves, and one that operates in the dark.
Invading Iraq was also a huge error. I supported the idea at the time, thinking that toppling Saddam would be worth it, but how many other dictators are out there that we aren’t toppling? Even ignoring that, our entire basis for the war was wrong, and the whole thing “felt” like we were doing it as a response to Iraq’s involvement in 9/11; a thing that didn’t happen. As someone at the time pointed out, this is like Japan attacking Pearl Harbor, and so we attack Japan and Norway (though depending on your feelings about this video, that might have been justified).
The imperial presidency, which Obama has only just started to roll back, really gained traction, too. Suddenly the president could do whatever he wanted as long as it was part of the “War on Terror”. Congress became a rubber stamp, or an afterthought. The Constitution and the freedoms and rights it offers were regarded as not being important enough to protect and defend. No, suddenly anything was ok, as long as it was in the name of stopping terrorism. This is the same kind of thinking that led to the round-up and illegal confinement of American citizens during World War II.
The final major error was believing that 9/11 “changed everything”. It did, but not in the way that people think. Instead of making us more vigilant, and making us focus on our errors in foreign policy, and listening to the legitimate grievances groups like Palestinians might have, we instead doubled-down on the insane rhetoric. We continued to prop up dictators as long as they were “tough on terror”, as opposed to being “tough on Communism” or “tough on drugs” (we always find an excuse to support people who act against what we claim are our highest moral beliefs). We self-inflicted a lot of damage on ourselves; far more than the terrorists ever did.
In sum, we overreacted on 9/11. That is, somewhat, understandable. Nothing like this had ever happened before, at least not to us. We got scared and panicked and made bad choices, because scared, panicked people almost always make bad choices. We stopped focusing on what was good and right about our country, and instead entered a dark and shadowy place; a place that isn’t compatible with who we claim to be.
One lesson we can and must draw from 9/11 is that always, every time, every single fucking time, that we cast aside our beliefs in what is right and wrong and throw away what makes this country great, it comes back to bite us in the ass. Just to bring up one example, this happened when the CIA toppled a legitimately elected government in Iran because they weren’t going to do what we told them to. It was almost 60 years ago, and our relations with Iran aren’t even close to normal. That isn’t even mentioning other CIA-backed coups, or the aforementioned propping up of various dictators who stand firmly against the rights we claim to want everyone to have.
9/11 appears more and more to have been a horrible, isolated event where al-Qaeda got lucky. Their luck was increased by the president ignoring documents with titles like “Al-Qaeda Determined to Attack Targets in the US”. Post-9/11 people often wondered if Al Gore would have invaded Afghanistan had he been in charge at the time. Probably, yes, but the better question is; Would Al Gore have been paying attention during his morning briefings and done something to prevent 9/11 in the first place?
Remember 9/11, yes. Remember everything we lost, including those things we chose to throw away, and bear in mind that, while 3,000 people died that horrible day, hundreds of thousands have died since as a direct result of our overreaction.