The Washington Post
Lessons from the 20 years since the day that shook America, and the world.
AS A young man in Illinois, Abraham Lincoln spoke of the natural protection that the United States — an “edifice of liberty and equal rights” — enjoyed in the hills and valleys of North America, between two oceans. “Danger,” he said, “cannot come from abroad,” not even if all "the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa” were arrayed against us.
On a beautiful late-summer morning 20 years ago today, a small army of terrorists from the Middle East proved Lincoln wrong, albeit by assaulting the continental United States with a weapon — hijacked aircraft — he could not have imagined. Al- Qaeda murdered 2,977 people and injured 6,000 in New York, the Pentagon and Pennsylvania, plunging their families and compatriots into mourning and the world into crisis. Sept. 11, 2001, horrified, rattled and then galvanized the United States. With overwhelming support from Congress, the public and allies abroad, President George W. Bush responded with a “war on terror,” which, in one form or another, his successors have continued.
Today, we mark the day that will forever be known as “9/11” in a spirit of mourning for the lives lost and gratitude for the heroism exhibited then, and since, by the military, police, firefighters, health-care workers and, indeed, ordinary people — most notably the passengers of United Flight 93, who on 9/11 prevented hijackers from striking the nation’s capital.
Inescapably, too, we acknowledge that America has reached the anniversary of that awful day, and of the onset of that war, in anything but a triumphal mood. Unity and pride in the attack’s immediate aftermath have long since given way to polarization, discord and a sense, bred by intervening economic and public health crises, that the country is on the wrong track. Polls tell us 60 percent of the country feels that way.
The long war on terror, and its recent culmination in the bloody spectacle of the U.S. pullout from Kabul, have caused frustration, anger, regret — for some, a sense of helplessness and loss as powerful as that engendered by 9/11 itself. In many respects, we share those sentiments. It could hardly be otherwise, given what has just happened in Afghanistan. Renewed terrorism could yet emanate from that country, back in the hands of the same Taliban that provoked the U.S. intervention by sheltering al- Qaeda.
Nor is there any denying the many other ways — strategic, tactical and moral — the United States went astray during the past two decades. The 2003 invasion of Iraq, based on exaggerated or erroneous intelligence on Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and links to global jihadism, cost many thousands of lives, destabilized the Middle East and harmed U.S. credibility abroad. The tentative democratic developments in Baghdad today, a modest positive consequence of that war, came at a high price.
At the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and in “black sites” around the world, the
United States descended into torture as a method of interrogation. This left a stain on the country’s reputation that will not soon be washed clean. Thirtynine prisoners remain at Guantánamo Bay, the legacy of an ill-conceived effort to detain and try terrorism suspects outside the Geneva Conventions and other legal constraints.
These failings feed an understandable impulse to try to cut U.S. losses, financial and human. But withdrawing from the world, and from the fight against terrorism, is no more viable an option today than in the past. Narratives that depict the past 20 years of engagement as an endless series of blunders lack balance and perspective.
First, the war on al-qaeda and its affiliates was far from a total failure. It began amid expectations that the conflict to root out jihadist terrorism would be long and costly, and might never yield clear victory, but was nonetheless necessary to prevent otherwise inevitable — and even more destructive — sequels to 9/11. Relative to that baseline, the fact that the United States has gone two decades with no more major terrorist strikes counts as a success, due largely to the skill, courage and dedication of American military, intelligence and law enforcement personnel, and those of U.S. allies. Not only is Osama bin Laden dead, but also the appeal of radical jihad has greatly diminished. Many who take this for granted and assert in hindsight that the United States “overreacted” seem to forget that 9/11 occurred after nearly a decade of escalating al- Qaeda attacks on U.S. targets overseas, to which previous administrations did not respond decisively.
Many shortcomings that are today blamed on the hubris and duplicity of U.S. leaders are attributable at least partly to the nature of the fight itself. Though the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were, at their beginnings, conventional battles, the war on terror was, as antici
pated, mainly unconventional, waged by Special Operations forces, intelligence officers and, from time to time, drones or other aircraft. It was, and still is, guerrilla war on a global scale; and guerrilla war involves brutal tactical dilemmas, due to the enemy’s lack of accountability as a state and its deliberate use of civilian populations for cover. No, the Bush administration should not have used Guantánamo as a law-free zone for “enemy combatants.” Yet we and other critics must at least concede the problem it addressed was a real one, still not fully resolved to this day.
Lincoln’s reflections about American invulnerability to outside aggression came in 1838, as part of a speech about a risk that, in his view, really did threaten the country, from within: mob violence in frontier states, often against antislavery activists or people of color. The best defense, he argued, lay in cultivating robust “reverence for the Constitution and laws.” This, Lincoln hoped, would inspire and sustain the people’s commitment to liberty and equality long after personal memories of the American Revolution faded, as they already had begun to do.
Adapting Lincoln’s wisdom, we must understand that, in addition to the unbanished specter of terrorism, our freedom and security today may be undermined by our own failure to adhere to the Constitution and the laws, or to draw on what he called “the solid quarry of sober reason.” We must learn from our mistakes. Yet we must learn from our successes, too. Many Americans in the years since 9/11 — from soldiers fighting terrorists on the battlefield to, yes, lawyers defending those accused of terrorism in court — have kept faith with the country’s ideals.
Let their examples continue to inspire, as the threat of terrorism ebbs and flows, new challenges arise and 9/11, both the actual day and the memory of it, inevitably recedes into the past.