September 11, 2001 was a traumatizing day for the United States. The photographs of the airplanes crashing into the World Trade Towers are still haunting, and the senseless loss of life is still painful. Images of the burning trade towers and people jumping to their deaths are indelibly etched into the minds of those who saw them.
U.S. policy decisions after 9/11 have turned what began as a traumatizing day into a traumatizing decade for the United States and the world. It is not clear what our political leaders have learned over the span of these ten years, but here are some lessons that seem clear to me:
1. The United States, despite its vast military power, was and remains vulnerable. Our borders are not inviolate. Our citizens may be attacked on our own territory.
2. The U.S. is not hated for its freedom, as President George W. Bush opined, but for its policies in supporting dictatorial and repressive regimes, particularly in the Middle East. Whatever freedoms the American people had on 9/11 have been greatly restricted over the past decade by the Patriot Act and other measures to increase governmental powers.
3. Wars are costly and they undermine economic prosperity at home. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have overdrawn the U.S. budget and helped to create the current economic malaise in the country.
4. American leaders are willing to lie the country into war, specifically the war in Iraq. We should have learned this lesson from the Vietnam War. There has been no accountability for the initiation of an aggressive war, as there was for the German leaders who were tried and convicted at Nuremburg following World War II for their crimes against peace.
5. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have injured and killed large numbers of civilians. For each terrorist who has been killed, more terrorists have been recruited to expand their numbers. What the Bush administration called the “Global War on Terror,” and the Obama administration prefers to call the “Overseas Contingency Operation,” is unwinnable by military means and likely to be endless.
6. A volunteer military can be used and abused with little response from the American people. Large numbers of volunteer soldiers have served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
7. Despite the illegality and moral repugnance of torture, American officials have been willing to engage in it and, as in the case of Dick Cheney, many remain unrepentant for its use.
8. President Obama’s expansion of the war in Afghanistan has shown that there is bipartisan political support for keeping the flames of war burning.
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After the U.S. was attacked on 9/11, it had the sympathy of the world. By its policies of endless war, the U.S. long ago lost those sympathies. If the U.S. wants to find a more decent foundation on which to rest its policies, I would hope that it would be based upon these two larger lessons:
9. War is not the answer to dealing with the threat of terrorism.
10. The way forward is with policies that are legal (under U.S. and international law), moral (demonstrating appropriate care for the innocent) and thoughtful (not based in hubris, alienating to the rest of the world and conducive to creating more terrorists).
Sadly, at the ten-year anniversary of 9/11, the U.S. seems lacking in sufficient self-reflection to grapple with these lessons.