The events of that day were so jarring that they are recorded in our memories as if they had taken place last week. But it has been a long decade, one in which we have made as many mistakes as we have had successes. Now, and not after we suffer another major terrorist attack, is good time to pause, look back, learn lessons, and begin to chart a path away from the past.
Looking back, we may see things that we do not want to revisit just yet, controversies that we wish to leave behind. For us to learn as a nation, however, for us to hand down to future generations what they need to know, we must be clear about what happened. We were attacked by a handful of people from a relatively small organization of fanatics who had tapped into the frustrations of a sizable minority of those who shared their ethnicity and religion. Our nation was stunned and wanted to unify in response. That desire for unity kept too many voices silent when they should have been contributing to a public debate about how to react. Wretched excesses were proposed and barely opposed. We invaded a country, Iraq, that had nothing to do with the attack on us, but had everything to do with the preconceived plans of a cabal in and out of our government. In the process, we killed 100,000, wounded many times more, and threw millions out of their homes. More Americans suffered violent deaths in Iraq than did on 9/11, and multiples more were scarred for life. Americans, including our troops, were lied to about Iraq’s role in 9/11 and some marched to their death motivated by those lies.
Constitutional protections that generations of Americans had struggled to achieve for our own people were eroded in the name of the new cause. Human-rights standards that America had stood for around the world were casually discarded in our treatment of others. The government ran roughshod over sacrosanct civil liberties and disregarded treaty obligations and international law. The CIA established a network of “black” detention centers, and used “enhanced interrogation techniques,” including waterboarding. Politicians used 9/11 and the new wars that resulted as a wedge issue to win elections and discredit opponents. Not since the phrase “wave the bloody shirt” was coined in the elections after the Civil War had office-seekers so blatantly tried to gain from Americans’ deaths.
Money was thrown at the Pentagon, intelligence agencies, and a new Orwellian sounding “homeland” bureaucracy. Large parts of CIA doubled in size and then spawned private-sector, for-profit replicas. With little real analysis as to need or effectiveness, and with a spending-binge mentality, we bought a homeland-intelligence-industrial complex that hides its overwhelming size behind secret budgets and corporate balance sheets. No one would question money allegedly to be used to fight those who had attacked us, nor have the courage to challenge the profits rolling out to the contractors. The spending came not only without new financial sacrifices, it came with tax cuts. The irony of this is that one of the stated goals of Al Qaeda is to lead the United States to death through a thousand cuts. In this strategy they have not been entirely unsuccessful. While we have severely disrupted their operational capability, the costs of our military engagements over the past decade have contributed immensely to our current financial malaise. Estimates of the total costs of the Iraq War vary. While the Pentagon has directly spent nearly $760 billion on the engagement, indirect costs push some estimates as high as $3 trillion. Researchers at Brown University recently estimated the costs of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and our aid to the Pakistani military total between $3.2 and $4 trillion.
For most of the decade, our reaction to the attack strengthened the attackers. Our unprovoked destruction of an Arab nation, our degradation of prisoners, our torturing of suspects, and perceived xenophobia and religious prejudice drove millions away from our cause and many into the ranks of our attackers. Only slowly did the repeated heinous acts of our enemy, their killing of their coreligionists, begin to undermine their support. Only with a new president did the focus of our effort swing from Iraq to a well-thought-out effort to destroy the organization that had actually attacked America on 9/11. Had we not invaded Iraq, had the last two years of wearing down of Al Qaeda been done instead, we could have reduced that threat to a marginalized nub five years ago. Those are the facts that should not be obscured by our desire to heal.
Learning lessons from those unassailable facts is even harder than looking them square in the eye again. One tough but necessary thing to admit is that for a long time we actually played into the hands of our opponents, doing precisely what they had wanted us to do, responding in the ways they had sought to provoke, damaging our economy and alienating much of the Middle East. Preserving and strengthening our critical thinking as a nation is even more necessary at a time when our emotions and primitive instincts would otherwise dominate. Recognizing that even in times of national crisis, the idea that questioning the wisdom of our government or its leaders is not unpatriotic should be an obvious conclusion from this decade. The corollary of that should be that patriotism does not include seeking to use national-security disasters and large-scale death as a basis for partisan political profit. For that to happen in the future, we need not only learned leaders but those with the courage to risk their own reputations by explaining complications, rather than oversimplifying and needlessly risking the lives of our troops.
Listening through the din to the voices of Cassandras, like the experts who warned about what an invasion of Iraq would bring, is a need that leaps out from recent years. Those who predict disasters will not always be right, but they should be heard and given the consideration that their experience merits and their analyses tested.
Knowing what our core values are and cleaving to them, even in times of testing, must be a lesson when we see the results of situational ethics and temporary, expedient treatment of basic rights. America should not again panic and overreact to terrorist attacks against this country.
Charting a path away from the past requires that we act on the perspective that this passage of time has bequeathed us. Terrorism is a continuing security issue going forward, and another series of attacks could happen, but terrorism is not an existential threat to the United States unless it were to involve nuclear attacks. The current terrorist threat does not justify the immense size of the homeland and intelligence spending. Nor does it justify a huge standing military force. The damage done to our country by our broken primary- and secondary-educational systems, climate change, our crumbling infrastructure, our inadequate research efforts and our lack of protection of intellectual property far exceeds anything that terrorism is likely to do to us in the next decade.
We, as a nation, must cease to be merely reactive and set about the achievement of goals that we dictate. Reversing the destabilizing trend of greater income inequality, improving the skill sets of our workforce, driving research that creates new industries, and elevating the political dialogue in our nation might be a good starting list. What better memorial could there be to the patriots who gave their lives for this country in this last decade than to build in their name an even more perfect union.
Assertions and opinions in this article are solely those of the above-mentioned author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.