The Washington Post Sunday

Trauma revisited

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Misha Friedman was just outside the World Trade Center complex, headed to work, when the second plane hit the South Tower on Sept. 11, 2001. He managed to make his way to this bench in a nearby park so he could call his mother; it was the only phone call he was able to make that morning. Twenty years later, he returned to the spot and took this photo.

After 9/11, references to World War II and the Cold War were ubiquitous. ABC News anchor Peter Jennings quickly likened the attack to Pearl Harbor and called it an “act of war,” and both USA Today and the New York Post adopted the phrase for front-page headlines the next morning. Comparison­s between the Greatest Generation and the new era’s young people abounded, with Newsweek dubbing them “Generation 9-11,” who might feel called to action by “working for the government, maybe joining the FBI or the CIA.”

Bush leaned heavily into these parallels. His 2002 State of the Union address famously proclaimed the United States’ enemies an “axis of evil,” invoking the Axis powers of Nazi Germany, fascist Italy and imperial Japan. He emphasized how the “war on terror,” like the Cold War, would be a generation­al struggle, a “campaign” that “may not be finished on our watch, yet it must be and it will be waged on our watch.” Linking more explicitly to mid-century foes, Bush declared that groups like al-Qaeda “follow in the path of fascism, Nazism and totalitari­anism,” later calling them “Islamic fascists.” Even the name of the period’s key institutio­nal legacy, the new Department of Homeland Security, invoked the garrison state and national security infrastruc­ture built in the wake of Pearl Harbor.

It was not surprising that, faced with 9/11’s horrific violence, Americans would embrace the metaphor of war and draw comparison­s to Pearl Harbor. But the invocation­s of World War II and the early Cold War also spoke to something deeper. Those mid-century years were a time of American ascendance and clear mission. Conflicts with Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union solidified a shared story about the nation: that the United States from the founding had been committed to principles of equality, democracy and personal liberty. In this narrative, the United States served as a beacon on the global stage, with a built-in project to safeguard freedom and peace and a concomitan­t right to intervene wherever instabilit­y arose.

The Soviet collapse only supercharg­ed a bipartisan triumphali­sm, promoting too a broad belief in the inevitabil­ity of aggressive market capitalism. It also reframed political debates about the legitimacy and excesses of U.S. Cold War interventi­ons, including coups, assassinat­ions, illegal bombing campaigns, the war in Vietnam and support for countless dictators. At home, the FBI and CIA conducted surveillan­ce and disruption of civil rights groups and antiwar activists, and the political fallout of foreign and domestic actions had cut short both Lyndon Johnson’s and Richard Nixon’s presidenci­es. But in the afterglow of Soviet defeat, such reflection on the Cold War’s means gave way to overwhelmi­ng pride in its end: fulfillmen­t of American destiny and victory over an existentia­l foe.

Although the start of the 21st century retained this triumphali­sm, the nation increasing­ly seemed unmoored. A decade after the fall of the Soviet Union, politician­s and commentato­rs worried that the country was bereft of national purpose, especially without a unifying antagonist. Both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton had turned to volunteeri­sm, whether in the form of “a thousand points of light” or AmeriCorps, as a way of instilling shared commitment and service. Still, by the early days of George W. Bush’s presidency, American politics appeared most defined by growing polarizati­on and bitter infighting, as exhibited by Clinton’s impeachmen­t and the contested 2000 presidenti­al election.

All of this created a striking status quo on the eve of 9/11. Both parties criticized “big government” with respect to the economy, but the state’s security apparatus — the military, the CIA, the FBI, the police — enjoyed broad approval. U.S. willingnes­s to use force featured prominentl­y in convention­al explanatio­ns for Cold War success, buttressin­g popular support for the national security establishm­ent. As Barack Obama would later assert, while accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, the world had been made safe in the 20th century by “the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms.” Beginning in 1989, the military was the American institutio­n that consistent­ly held the highest public confidence in Gallup surveys, with approval rates rising by double digits since the 1970s. This had ripple effects even among liberals, where the most common critique of U.S. foreign policy during the 1990s came from those — like future Obama (and Biden) official Samantha Power — who argued for more military action, but on behalf of human rights. Rather than an intervener in thorny Asian and African political struggles over colonialis­m or socialism, the U.S. military seemed recast as an apolitical moral agent to stop bad global actors or “rogue states.”

This sentiment was part of a real bipartisan embrace of the state’s potential to address even domestic social issues by force. “Broken windows” policing was in vogue, along with the notion that more aggressive law enforcemen­t and stiffer prison sentences would keep Americans safe, no matter that the result was a system of mass incarcerat­ion that targeted minority communitie­s and intensifie­d racial and class disparitie­s. At the border, Clinton-era laws created a massive detention and deportatio­n apparatus, exponentia­lly increasing the number of people jailed. On the morning of 9/11, Bush sat atop a security infrastruc­ture — already expanding in the contexts of policing and immigratio­n — that enjoyed a profound degree of goodwill, especially by comparison with the 1960s and 1970s. But it lacked a unifying focus.

For those around Bush, 9/11 shifted everything, in part because it ended that political drift. When Bush declared, in the “axis of evil” speech, that all Americans who lived through the day’s events “have been changed by them” and that the country had been “called to a unique role in human events,” he turned the page on the previous decade’s uncertaint­ies — including whether, with few overarchin­g threats to the global order, the world still needed the United States. But in asserting the end of post-Cold War malaise, the president did not usher in a genuine search for new worldviews and approaches. Bush’s rhetoric highlighte­d how 9/11 instead returned Americans to the mid-century era of indispensa­bility. And since the United States was to engage again in the type of existentia­l struggles that had given the country meaning, the policies should follow suit — even if they failed to match the new moment.

Partly, this framing was a product of Bush’s foreign policy team, composed of inveterate Cold Warriors, from national security adviser and Soviet specialist Condoleezz­a Rice to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who had held the same job in the 1970s under Gerald Ford. They drew from the past a combinatio­n of militarism and absolute moral certainty: The world had been divided into friends and enemies, and the United States had won the Cold War because it was willing to get its hands dirty in Asia

Latin America, and had refused to cede ground to its foes. When Bush declared, nine days after the attacks, “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” he returned to that familiar playbook.

One problem with this approach was that it steadily became clear that al-Qaeda, a relatively small group of terrorists mostly encamped in Afghanista­n, was dangerous but hardly an existentia­l threat — certainly not on the scale of the Nazis or the Soviets. As Rumsfeld himself noted of the fall 2001 bombing campaign in Afghanista­n, “There is not a lot of al-Qaeda to hit.” In the 20 years since, more Americans have been killed inside the United States by far-right extremists than by Islamists (114 as opposed to 107, with about half of the latter dying in the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting).

Still, in embracing an expansive vision of the United States pitted in battle against the enemies of freedom, officials moved well beyond holding accountabl­e the specific actors involved in the Sept. 11 attacks. They turned instead to the project of overcoming “terror” itself. And when Bush named Iran, Iraq and North Korea as the main “axis of evil” — countries with no connection at all to 9/11 — the fight morphed into one against any state or entity, especially in the Middle East, that opposed American dominance or security objectives. Framed that way, for Bush officials, and for many Democrats, it made sense to expand the war to an invasion of Iraq. Thomas Friedman infamously declared the Iraq War demonstrat­ed American commitment to maintainin­g its global standing: “What they needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house, from Basra to Baghdad, and basically saying: ‘Which part of this sentence don’t you understand? You don’t think we care about our open society? . . . Well, suck on this.’ ”

All this Manichaean posturing erased any likelihood of seriously reconceivi­ng the American role, in the Middle East or elsewhere. A decade before 9/11, the United States fought a war against Iraq and became, for all intents and purposes, a key regional power, aligned with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Israel. Though our Persian Gulf allies’ internal politics had created the cauldron for al-Qaeda’s developmen­t, focusing instead on Iran and Iraq redoubled the existing strategic configurat­ion. It also compounded a long-term problem for the war on terror, one that had plagued the Cold War as well: Officials couched specific and problemati­c security alliances in vague and sweeping language of freedom and democracy. When faced with opposition on the ground or the collapse of U.S. strategies, they time and again read hostility as a product of local inadequaci­es rather than of competing political desires and rivalries. Lawmakers in both parties blamed reversals in Iraq on Iraqis themselves, with Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) stating in 2006, in near-identical terms, that Iraqis seemed “incapable of solving their own problems” or “unable or unwilling” to “stabiand lize their country.”

To make matters worse, Bush officials also revived old Cold War means, updated for the new anti-terrorism agenda. Those around Bush seemingly had few doubts about the tactics used in that earlier struggle. Whatever the 1970s recriminat­ions about rights abuses and overseas violence, officials after 9/11 repeated past arguments that global victory required a willingnes­s to operate at the edges of the law. As CIA Director George Tenet bluntly stated in 2002, “There’s nothing we won’t do, nothing we won’t try” — which seemed to absolve practices including the use of black sites, disappeara­nces, indefinite detention and torture. In addition to failing on their own terms, such tactics undermined any U.S. effort to claim a global moral high ground.

Initially, the war on terror appeared to change the country’s political trajectory, forging a common mission and providing the unifying effect that elites believed America needed. Against the extreme polarizati­on of 2021, it can be hard to recall the degree of support Bush enjoyed shortly after the attacks: His approval rating reached 90 percent in late September 2001 and again rose to 71 percent in the heady days of Saddam Hussein’s fall in Iraq in April 2003. There were few of the generation­al disagreeme­nts that mark our current political divisions. Young people after 9/11 showed a remarkable amount of faith in the judgment of those in power, with 85 percent of “young Americans” supporttha­t ing the war in Afghanista­n and 83 percent approving of Bush in November 2001.

All of this translated into formal policies. The Patriot Act, which dramatical­ly expanded domestic surveillan­ce powers, passed the Senate 98 to 1 (only Democrat Russ Feingold of Wisconsin voted no). Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) was the only lawmaker to vote against the sweeping 2001 military authorizat­ion that gave Bush the broad power to use “all necessary” force against any person or group “he determines” was linked to 9/11. That authorizat­ion became the White House’s legal basis for actions from the war in Afghanista­n to targeted killings and detention and interrogat­ion practices worldwide. Despite domestic and global protests, the Iraq War enjoyed the approval of a sizable American majority in 2003. And even among opponents of that particular conflict, questionin­g the overarchin­g war on terror was a political nonstarter throughout the decade that followed.

But as the country moved further away from the events of 9/11, the galvanizin­g ambitions behind the war on terror — including the notion of restoring national purpose — curdled. Americans found themselves grappling with images from Abu Ghraib, or stories of innocent people, such as Mohamedou Ould Slahi, tortured and detained for years at Guantánamo Bay and elsewhere. Most critically, these means did not appear to further any discernibl­e ends. The wars in Afghanista­n and Iraq became defined by premature and repetitive declaratio­ns of victory, news reports of civilians mistakenly killed, and seemingly endless bloodshed.

Partly, that was because the ultimate goal had never really been clear. Creating “democracy” remained a vague objective, especially as U.S. officials often engaged in a kind of wish fulfillmen­t — that regional strategic interests, to check Iran or to promote pliable allies, would somehow have widespread local support.

The tensions instead created a cycle of making dubious alliances, facing opposition on the ground, intervenin­g as a response, then sparking more violence and recriminat­ions. Future administra­tions seemed trapped into repeating the cycle. Obama entered office declaring that the prison at Guantánamo would be closed, but he left with it still open. He announced a withdrawal plan for Afghanista­n in the summer of 2011 but made little headway. Rather than a break from the Bush years, the Obama presidency became closely identified with drone strikes and more “collateral damage.” The war on terror may have been renamed “overseas contingenc­y operations,” but much of the security approach and the drift persisted.

Domestical­ly, these endless conflicts in Muslim-majority countries created a growing politics of xenophobia. Part of this resulted from the disconnect between official proclamati­ons that the United States was not at war with Islam, as Bush emphatical­ly stated, and the reality of a massive counterter­rorism

directed specifical­ly at Muslims. The Justice Department oversaw the detention of more than 1,000 Muslims without cause immediatel­y after 9/11, then created registrati­on systems for the monitoring of immigrants and travelers from 24 Arab- or Muslim-majority countries, alongside the “axis” nation of North Korea. Eventually it became evident that such communitie­s in the United States posed a limited terrorism threat. And, as it turned out, 9/11 appeared to be a relatively singular event, rather than a harbinger of repeated attacks on American soil. Still, of the 38 groups designated as foreign terrorist organizati­ons after 9/11 — such that providing “material support” to them became a crime, including speech supporting a group’s lawful activities — 35 were Islamist. Scholars concluded that Muslim surveillan­ce was so extensive, between local police and the FBI, that there was “reason to believe that there are informants at each and every mosque in the United States.”

The intensity of the counterter­rorism orientatio­n made it hard to maintain that Muslims were not being treated as a community apart. But notably, although the immediate post-9/11 period produced a spike in anti-Muslim assaults, those numbers soon declined. It was only after a decade of sustained government targeting that assaults dramatical­ly rose again during the 2010s, with the 127 reported incidents in 2016 well exceeding 2001 figures. This increase had little to do with any objective threat, given the long distance from 9/11, the overwhelmi­ng opposition among Muslim communitie­s to al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism and the real weakness of terrorist groups.

Regardless, these assaults highlighte­d how some Americans had come to internaliz­e more than a decade of war: Fifteen years of policy had emphasized fears about Muslims. At the same time, more Americans, especially on the right, explained the country’s strategic failures in the war on terror — with thousands of U.S. soldiers dead and hundreds of thousands of civilians killed overseas — as a function of racial and cultural flaws in Muslim societies. These societies, the argument went, could not be made free, no matter what Americans tried.

Donald Trump gave voice and clarity to this bigoted position, referring to Muslims during his 2016 campaign, for instance, as “a group of people that is very sick.” That year’s explosion in antiMuslim incidents was not a coincidenc­e. Trump both attacked the Iraq War — which he had initially supported — and called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States, the latter idea an extreme version of existing counterter­rorism policy. According to Trumpian logic, the problem with the Bush years was the belief that culturally threatenin­g outsiders could ever be part of Friedman’s “open society.” Rather, Americans had to reassert the value of the homeland and build a wall to protect against racial foreigners of all kinds. None of this, however, meant curtailing the dramatic expansion of security spending or reevalfram­ework uating the war on terror paradigm. Keeping America safe still required a belligeren­t us-vs.-them stance toward the world, especially the non-White world.

So the choices made after 9/11 did transform American life, but not necessaril­y in ways most Americans in 2001 would have expected or wanted. These decisions dramatical­ly expanded the security apparatus, led to wars of occupation, and fed a domestic politics of Islamophob­ia and discontent that helped fuel the rise of white supremacy. And the rapid collapse of Afghanista­n’s government as the United States withdrew last month underscore­s perhaps the most surprising legacy of 9/11: the profound breakdown of public confidence in political elites and governing institutio­ns over the last 20 years.

In the early 2000s, faith in an America at war and in unbridled capitalism was at a fever pitch. Officials like Paul Bremer, the Coalition Provisiona­l Authority boss in Iraq, often joined the two, as when he imagined that Iraq’s state-run economy could be replaced in one fell swoop with a flat tax and systematic deregulati­on. But the following years paired the intelligen­ce failures and reversals of the war on terror with a near-collapse of the global financial system, raising questions about the trustworth­iness and legitimacy of both national security and economic expertise.

Still, the current environmen­t does seem to repeat that of 2001 in one key way — namely, in the political desire to turn back the clock. Trumpism is infused with a nostalgia for a mythic past, one before threatenin­g outsiders. And part of the popular support for President Biden can be read as the hope simply to go back to any time before the present, when American politics felt normal.

But an important lesson of the response to 9/11 lies in the pitfalls of nostalgia. Bush-era rhetoric and policy used a simplified, triumphali­st account of the Greatest Generation’s conflicts to pursue destructiv­e ends. Twenty years later, pressure is growing again, especially given the failures in Afghanista­n, to find new ways to display American power, to prove that, as Biden has said, “America is back.” That impulse was present in the president’s speech after the Kabul airport attack, with his vow to “make you pay” sounding like a continuati­on of the war on terror’s vengeance and collective punishment. Discussion­s of pivoting away from the Middle East to different hot spots — such as calls to focus on the Asia-Pacific theater and a new Cold War with China — appear caught in the same loop. Even if officials wrap up what remains of the war on terror, if they simply redirect the same mid-century, Manichaean, militarize­d framing revived after 9/11, it shows that little was learned. The quest for dominance has generated neither peace nor democracy at home or abroad. Returning to the same well is unlikely to produce a different outcome.

This weekend, along with remembranc­es of the lives lost on 9/11 and in the wars that followed, perhaps Americans can begin the genuine rethinking that the end of the Cold War invited and that the attacks in 2001 ended up foreclosin­g. This starts by seriously confrontin­g what the war on terror produced and its institutio­nal footprints. Should we endorse use-of-force authorizat­ions that give presidents near-total discretion to fight forever wars? How much of the overgrown domestic security infrastruc­ture around mass surveillan­ce, detention, deportatio­n and aggressive prosecutio­n is actually necessary? What should be done about the culture of impunity that has allowed officials who oversaw abuse to evade political, let alone legal, consequenc­es? What about the defense contractin­g that in Afghanista­n gave billions of dollars to private U.S. companies, but did very little to sustain a local army or a government with internal credibilit­y? Those trillions plowed into overseas conflicts stand in sharp contrast to decades of disinvestm­ent at home, a reality made even starker by unfolding health and economic crises. Finally, what responsibi­lity do we have to people caught up in American actions — whether Afghans today fleeing the return of the Taliban or innocent detainees denied their day in court?

Truly moving forward will require accounting for the past. But that can’t happen if we remain entranced by a flawed image of a bygone America.

Aziz Rana is the Richard and Lois Cole professor of law at Cornell Law School and the author of “The Two Faces of American Freedom.”

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MISHA FRIEDMAN

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