Ten years ago this Sunday, 19 men armed with boxcutters and working in small groups hijacked four commercial airliners in U.S. air space. Three of the four planes, used as weapons, achieved their destructive aims. Two took down the twin towers of the World Trade Center in Manhattan, and a third struck the Pentagon in Arlington, Va. The fourth, destined for the Capitol in Washington, D.C., crashed outside Shanksville, Penn. — the result of a passenger revolt. All told, 2,977 lives were lost as a consequence of the al-Quaeda-orchestrated attacks. The war of terror had finally hit the homeland, and hard.
But what has changed — about us as a people, about the U.S. as a nation, about the world we inhabit — since the day we now refer to as 9/11? The answer, in all its complexity, is, quite a bit, and not all of it for the better. After President George W. Bush declared war on terrorism, he, Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld launched two misbegotten wars — first in Afghanistan, then in Iraq — on the good faith and credit of the U.S. government. To date those wars — which were initially explained to the U.S. public in terms of taking the fight to the enemy — have cost the U.S. the lives of 6,233 young people (and left another 45,170 wounded) and almost $1.25 trillion that could have been used to rebuild our nation.
On this 10th anniversary of the most devastating homeland attack in our nation’s brief history, the question we should be reflecting on is, Are we safer today, after the billions of dollars that have been spent on homeland security, such as the advent of the Transportation Security Administration with its hated patdowns and full-body scanners; enactment and renewal of the Patriot Act, which gives law enforcement agencies the authority to perform domestic spying on citizens and residents alike; a war of reason and a war of choice that seem to have no end in sight; the use of torture as an interrogation method by U.S. intelligence officers to extract information from terror operatives; and, finally, the death this year of Osama bin Laden himself, at the hands of U.S. Navy Seals, on the home turf of a key regional ally, Pakistan?
In a physical sense, we are safer. Al Quaida has not succeeded in carrying out another massive attack in the past 10 years. A few lone wolves have tried to wreak terror on U.S. soil, but only the Ft. Hood shooter in Texas — a soldier himself — prevailed in killing anyone. Socially and economically, our country is a mess: 9.1 percent overall unemployment (worse for blacks and Hispanics), a depressed housing market, 20 percent of our national budget going to military spending, a national debt of $14.2 trillion and government representatives who seem to care more about how their decisions will affect the bottom lines of wealthy patrons than about the working class people whose spending drives 70 percent of our $14 trillion consumer-based economy.
Perhaps what has happened to the U.S. since 9/11 — its great over-reaction to the threat of terrorism in all its manifestations — is what bin Laden hoped would befall his most-hated enemy: the terror of economic ruin that has left the country deeply divided over how to repair the damage wrought by nearly four years of recession, embroilment in wars in far-off places that are costing the nation the lives of a young generation and precious other valuable resources — wars that are as unnecessary now as they were then.
The war on terrorism, on the other hand, is a necessity, and the U.S. and its allies must remain vigilant against future terror attacks. But they can do this far better by first securing their homelands and making them stronger economically, socially and politically from bottom to top. When the U.S. finally emerges from its current wars and economic malaise as a more united, more thoughtful America, it’ll be because we’ve finally figured out the lesson of 9/11 and embraced the notion that true power comes from within and, when projected outwardly, is best used judiciously. SB