It’s a cliché to say it’s hard to overstate the impact of some historical event. But when it comes to the September 11 attacks, it really is true.
Not because the attacks were uniquely terrible. Three thousand dead in a terrorist attack is a senseless waste of life, but it pales in comparison to the toll of various disasters that have befallen Americans throughout their history, including the current pandemic — let alone disasters Washington has visited on other countries, some of them going on as you read this. And while the Saudi-born-and-backed terrorists succeeded in causing an enormous amount of carnage, they did not, for example, unseat a democratic government and replaced it with dictatorship, as happened in Chile on the original 9/11.
The reason the attacks continue to loom over us as they do is the official US response to them, initially set by George W. Bush and carried on and escalated by each of the liberal and conservative presidents that followed. The “war on terror” that Bush decided to launch, the great national mission that would restore the country’s direction and vitality after the years spent wandering aimlessly with no more Cold War to fight, rearranged the geopolitical map, spread death and destruction throughout the globe, and shaped the US political landscape for two decades and counting. There was hardly a field of US domestic policy that went untouched by the September 11 attacks and the foolish “war” they spurred.
A World Transformed
To start with, though, just take stock of the numbers. Nine hundred thousand people killed, including close to four hundred thousand civilians, and more than fifteen thousand US troops and contractors — more than seven times the number of Americans killed in the original attacks. Wars in eight majority-Muslim nations, with counterterrorism work reaching into eighty-five different countries. At least 37 million people turned into refugees, the largest displacement of human beings since World War II. Twenty-one trillion dollars spent on domestic and foreign militarization, including $8 trillion on war spending alone, with an eighth of that spent on paying down interest.
The war has been a bonanza for private profiteers, so it’s just as well that it has also been the perfect self-perpetuating atrocity. Whatever other forces may have driven them, the perpetrators of anti-American terrorism, both those at the top like Osama bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and “lone wolf,” organizationally unconnected terrorists like the would-be Times Square bomber or the Pulse nightclub gunman, have again and again pointed to Washington’s foreign policy as a focal point of the anger that animated their lethal actions — including US backing for Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians or “counterterror” policies like drones, torture, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The response to September 11 reshaped the world. Smoke was still rising from the World Trade Center when UK prime minister Tony Blair privately insisted to Bush on “co-opting the rest of the world,” now that it was “in a state of shock” and “feels maximum sympathy for the US.” The result was not just a global network of torture dungeons that swept up completely innocent people with alarming frequency, but two disastrous regime-change operations against governments that, unlike Bush’s close family friends and allies in the House of Saud, had little to nothing to do with the attacks.
US troops may have finally left Afghanistan, but they still don’t seem to be able to quit Iraq, which continues to be mired in instability and violence. Somewhat comically, the war there has been detrimental to Washington’s geopolitical interests, having opened the door to Iranian influence in the country that Saddam Hussein had kept firmly shut. The massive refugee crisis caused by this and other theaters of the war on terror, meanwhile, has similarly reshaped politics across the Western world, with rightist groups and politicians marshaling anger against the fleeing newcomers in countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Sweden. You cannot separate the war on terror from the rise of today’s global far right, for whom hostility to Muslims, particularly immigrants, is the uniting principle.
In the United States, what followed was a political landscape saturated with new anti-Muslim-motivated racism, flaring up in flashpoints like the “Ground Zero mosque” or “no-go zones.” At the center of the unhinged Republican response to Barack Obama — a corporate-friendly technocrat who expanded Bush’s “war on terror” — was the delusion that he was secretly a Muslim. Trump, meanwhile, rode his party’s anti-Muslim animus to the GOP nomination and then the presidency, his hostility to refugees from Syria — another country the United States wouldn’t be waging war in if not for 9/11 — and Muslim immigrants in general central to his political program. The fact that Bush rushed to a mosque to assure Muslims the United States wasn’t at war with them specifically only underscored the reality that a never-ending series of attacks on Muslim countries was exactly what the war on terror would end up being.
It was immigrants who bore the brunt of this war. In an echo of the Palmer Raids and the detention of Japanese Americans, Bush swept up and detained hundreds of law-abiding immigrants after the attacks. He and his successors then tightened and militarized the already harsh US immigration system, ostensibly to fight terrorism, but in practice to more efficiently and brutally repel innocent migrants trying to look for a better life. Even worse, the new agencies created to do this have started broadening their purview, harassing immigration attorneys and others over their political work, persecuting documented immigrants, and surveilling protesters.
Maybe most alarming, the September 11 attacks fueled a dangerous concentration of authoritarian powers within the already undemocratic national-security state. Besides the largest, most invasive surveillance state in human history, which continues to suck up and store data about everything we do online, consider the various powers the US president has at his or her disposal thanks to the battle against terrorism: ordering the murder of anyone, anywhere, without due process; detaining suspects indefinitely; unilaterally launching wars whenever they feel like it, with the thinnest of justifications; and clamping down on adversarial reporting through a variety of strategies.
Today’s immense and powerful national-security state could only be a fantasy for a dangerous paranoiac like Richard Nixon, and still could at any point be seized by a capable authoritarian to trample democracy. We got only a taste of this last year, when Trump sent the foot soldiers of this massive new bureaucracy onto American streets, kitted out as they were in Fallujah, to crack down on anti-police-brutality protesters, even kidnapping them off the streets.
The politics of this century have been shaped in other ways by 9/11. From the day of the attacks and through his reelection in 2004, Bush made seeming “soft on terror” not a political liability, but the political liability, engineering a dangerous rightward lurch on national-security policy by dragging a weak and rudderless Democratic Party with him. Even when Obama won the presidency by repudiating Bush’s foreign policy and his counterterror excesses, this didn’t change: Scott Brown’s 2010 upset to win the Massachusetts Senate race, built on the back of Bush-style soft-on-terror messaging, spooked Obama and his party enough to claim Bush’s war as their own, and intensify and broaden every bad thing about it.
With little to show on the domestic front, the Democrats spent their 2012 presidential convention celebrating Obama’s ability to kill terrorists (little wonder that Obama presided over a massive drop in support for the United States in the Arab world, the country’s approval rating even lower at one point than in Bush’s final year). Today, the Democrats are still recruiting candidates from the chambers of the national-security state at high rates.
We’re only now starting to dig out of this hole. In retrospect, it may have been Donald Trump’s repudiation of Bush and his wars that turned the tide politically, making it safe for politicians to start criticizing elements of the war on terror, and helping create the political space for last month’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the tide has only turned so far: the worldwide war on terror is still going, and both Trump and Biden have continued to enthusiastically prosecute it, as will future presidents.
A final irony is that in its bloated, reckless response to September 11, Washington ended up playing right into bin Laden’s hands.
Having already fought one empire to the death in Afghanistan, bin Laden made no secret of how he planned to take down the American juggernaut, with comparatively few men under his command and nothing approaching the size or sophistication of the military he was facing. Fighting the Soviet Union, bin Laden had explained in 2004, had trained him and other Mujahideen “in using guerrilla warfare and the war of attrition to fight tyrannical superpowers,” having “bled Russia for ten years until it went bankrupt and was forced to withdraw in defeat.” Likewise, he explained, they were now “continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy”:
All that we have to do is to send two Mujahedin to the farthest point East to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qa’ida in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human economic and political losses without their achieving for it anything of note other than some benefits to their private companies.
Noting the national deficit “has reached record, astronomical numbers estimated to total more than a trillion dollars,” and the expensive contracts doled out to firms connected to the Bush administration, bin Laden concluded “that the real loser is . . . you. It’s the American people and their economy.”
Seventeen years after those remarks, it’s hard to disagree.
It’s still rare to hear a politician make the simple point that Washington’s foreign policy is the chief driver of the very terrorism it’s trying to fight, just as the US presence in Afghanistan caused the Taliban’s resurgence. Even Biden justified the end of that war on the narrow basis that it was too costly and had gone on too long without success.
But thanks to a different generational crisis, there are signs we’re starting to leave behind the post-9/11 era. Reprioritizing the country’s domestic crises rather than endless foreign adventurism has been one of few silver linings of the COVID pandemic.
Which is just as well. The post-9/11 world was one of cruelty and destruction, an era that did nothing except lubricate the political careers of a few amoral opportunists and make a gaggle of war profiteers very fat and happy. The sooner we see the back of it, the better.