As we observe another anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attack that shattered American life 18 years ago, its full impact is still unfolding. Those who planned it succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. The airborne assaults that took nearly 3,000 lives on that day may now be seen as the most diabolically successful terror attack in history. That attack not only wreaked carnage at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in rural Pennsylvania. It wound up dragging the United States into an endless state of war that has drained our treasury, poisoned our politics, created waves of new terrorism, and made us the enemy of millions around the world.
The apparent chief perpetrator of the 9/11 attack, Osama bin Laden, presumably cackled with joy when he heard news of his success on that stunning day. He lived for another 10 years, long enough to cackle with even greater glee at Washington’s self-defeating response to the attack. Using the 9/11 attack as a pretext, the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. Bin Laden died knowing that he had lured us into the greatest foreign policy disaster in American history.
It is a truism that our lives are shaped not by what happens to us, but by how we react to what happens to us. The same applies to nations. Devastating as the death toll was on Sept. 11, 2001, it turned out to be only a taste of what was to come. The United States has been at war ever since. Thousands of Americans have died. So have hundreds of thousands of civilians in the Middle East and beyond. This nearly two-decade-long spasm of attacking, bombing, and occupying countries has decisively shaped the United States and its image in the world. Every day that our “forever war” continues is a triumph for bin Laden. So is every wounded veteran who returns home, every newly minted terrorist infuriated by an American attack, every citizen of the world who recoils at what US forces are being sent to do. We did not simply fall into bin Laden’s trap, we raced in at full speed. Even now, we show little will to extricate ourselves.
America’s determination to strike back with devastating force after 9/11 was understandable given our shared sense of ravaged innocence. We might have launched a concentrated strike against the gang of several hundred criminals whose leaders attacked the United States, and then come home. Instead we have used the 9/11 attack to justify wars and military deployments around the world.
On Sept. 14, 2001, Congress passed an “authorization for the use of military force” against the perpetrators of that week’s attack and against their “associated forces.” Three presidents have used that authorization to deploy troops across the Middle East and in countries from Kenya to Georgia to the Philippines. Every call for US withdrawal from Afghanistan or Iraq or Syria is met by warnings that ending wars could produce “another 9/11.” This has become the paralyzing mantra that prevents us from halting the hydra-headed military campaign we have been waging for 18 years. We also use it to justify atrocities at prisons like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Bin Laden has succeeded even in colonizing our minds.
Soon after passing its highly elastic authorization for military action against “associated forces,” Congress approved another, even more sweeping law: the Patriot Act. It gave the government broad new power to monitor people and businesses, and has become a foundation stone of our emerging “surveillance state.” The 9/11 attack led us to distort not only our approach to the world, but also the balance between freedom and security at home.
Another pernicious aftereffect of the terror attack has been the deepening of our national us-against-them narrative. This began with President George W. Bush’s assertion that every country in the world had to be “either with us or against us.” Crusader rhetoric posits the United States as the indispensable guardian of civilization, entitled to act as it chooses in order to fend off a threatening tide of barbarism. Now this approach has leaked back into the United States. Racist attacks that tear at our social fabric are the domestic reflection of foreign policies that see the rest of the world as a hostile “other” bent on destroying our way of life.
Last month it was announced that the five surviving alleged plotters of the 9/11 attack will finally be brought to trial in 2021. If they are aware of what is happening in the world, they will arrive in court with a deep sense of satisfaction. Their great triumph was not the attack. It was the damage the United States has since inflicted upon itself.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.