It’s been 20 years almost to the day since Sept. 11, 2001. Why are we still flagellating ourselves over an event so long ago when 1,500 Americans are dying per day from COVID-19? And why aren’t we paying more attention to what happened on Jan. 6, 2021?
Al-Qaida had been a threat to the U.S. since the 1990s: the group’s first attempt on the World Trade Center took the form of a truck bomb. The explosion killed six people and injured more than 1,000. Other attacks targeted both U.S. servicemembers and civilians, but whether through luck or good counterintelligence, none of the other plans succeeded on the same scale.
When the attacks took place, I’d been in the Air Force for a little over two years. I was stationed at Gunter Annex, in Montgomery, Ala. Rather than discuss the events of that day, though, I want to look at what happened over the next weeks, then months, then years — and just how badly the U.S. handled our response.
I remember how we, as a nation, flew into a collective blind rage. How dare a bunch of foreigners with different-color skin kill 3,000 Americans? That privilege is reserved for us (to the tune of about 30,000 per year from gun violence alone).
The first victim of our outrage wasn’t an extremist nor even a Muslim, but a Sikh man, Balbir Singh Sodhi. Twenty years later, Christian extremists and nationalists continue to target Sikhs for violence. Then-President George W. Bush, to his credit, implored people to see that extremism, not Islam, was the real threat. But his Republican party, built on racism and hatred, was in no mood to listen.
Our intelligence agencies knew that Osama bin Laden was in Afghanistan, and the Taliban refused to hand him over. So into Afghanistan we went, with less of a plan than Peter Quill had to get the Power Stone away from Ronin the Accuser. To their credit, the U.S. armed forces carried out their pursuit of 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden with efficiency and purpose — until they were abruptly hamstrung in December of 2001. In a 2009 report to members of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) wrote:
… [T]he Al Qaeda leader would live to fight another day.
Fewer than 100 American commandos were on the scene with their
Afghan allies, and calls for reinforcements to launch an
assault were rejected. Requests were also turned down for U.S.
troops to block the mountain paths leading to sanctuary a few
miles away in Pakistan. The vast array of American military
power, from sniper teams to the most mobile divisions of the
Marine Corps and the Army, was kept on the sidelines. Instead,
the U.S. command chose to rely on airstrikes and untrained
Afghan militias to attack bin Laden and on Pakistan's loosely
organized Frontier Corps to seal his escape routes. On or
around December 16, two days after writing his will, bin Laden
and an entourage of bodyguards walked unmolested out of Tora
Bora and disappeared into Pakistan's unregulated tribal area.
So American and allied forces insinuated themselves into Afghanistan, because that was somehow easier than putting enough troops on the ground to fish him out of Tora Bora, easier than pursuing him into Pakistan when the U.S. had the backing and goodwill of the entire world, and easier than going after bin Laden’s money and backers in Saudi Arabia (where a whopping 15 of the 19 hijackers called home). It was a move that I knew would put us in the country for at least a generation, especially if we were serious about trying to rebuild the place.
And then the U.S. invaded Iraq because, and I quote the former president directly, “That man tried to kill my daddy.” Yes, he really said that. Oh, he sold the public on weapons of mass destruction, but they didn’t actually exist — and the largest American media outlets, who should have pressed for evidence, took his word on it. And why not invade Iraq? We’d been enforcing no-fly zones over two-thirds of the country for 12 years by that point anyway.
Twenty years and hundreds of thousands of lives later, what did we really gain? Bin Laden continued to plan terrorist attacks until his death at the hands of U.S. special forces in Pakistan May 2, 2011. A new terrorist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (which I call Daesh), filled the power vacuum left after the deaths of Saddam Hussein and Muqtada al-Sadr and the departure of American forces from Iraq. The Taliban took over Afghanistan in a matter of days as U.S. forces withdrew in August, negating 20 years of American and allied efforts.
I remember how we gave up essential liberties and let our government get away with torture when all we needed was to bulletproof the cockpits of our passenger airplanes.
Six weeks after Sept. 11, Congress passed the ill-named USA PATRIOT Act. The bill arguably violated Fourth Amendment protections against search and seizure and allowed the government to detain immigrants indefinitely without trial. In addition, it prevented people from disclosing what records U.S. law enforcement had requested with a warrant. Rutherford Institute founder John Whitehead wrote, “[T]he Patriot Act violates at least six of the ten original amendments known as the Bill of Rights — the First, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Amendments — and possibly the Thirteenth and Fourteenth as well.”
How many terrorist attacks did this law enforcement overreach stop? Probably none. Certainly far fewer than were stopped by airplane passengers both on Sept. 11 and shortly thereafter. Of course, Republicans these days would probably be cheering for the terrorists.
As if the Patriot Act wasn’t enough, the Bush administration created an “enemy combatant” term out of whole cloth and used it to justify the indefinite detention of both prisoners of war and victims of kidnapping at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It greenlit torture, under the guise of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” that led to well-documented war crimes at the Abu Ghraib prison.
And then there’s the Department of Homeland Security, a government agency whose name — and whose actions during last year’s Black Lives Matter protests — ooze fascism. The department oversees the U.S. intelligence apparatus, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, which is famous for separating immigrant children from their families and placing them in concentration camps.
I remember a Republican Party that wasn’t a collection of terrorists and fascists themselves.
Let’s get something out of the way: the modern-day GOP is built on hatred. It caters to white people who are afraid of people who don’t look like them: it points to people of color and says, everything that’s wrong with the country is their fault. But never, until the rise of Donald Trump, did the GOP so freely align itself with outright fascism.
Racism has always shaped law and law enforcement in the United States, but at no time was the contrast more clear than in 2020 and 2021, when law enforcement officers took to the streets against Black Lives Matter protesters — using vehicles and equipment that had been developed to fight insurgencies after Sept. 11 — while handling armed white protesters with kid gloves.
Police have been trained to think of people of color as the enemy, they have been equipped with weapons of war, and in most cases they have qualified immunity for anything remotely related to the performance of their job. In short, police in the United States can declare an “unlawful assembly” at a Black Lives Matter protesters and turn it into open season.
But when a white mob, rallied into a frenzy by then-President Donald Trump, stormed the Capitol and threatened the lives of members of Congress, the nature of law enforcement’s response was a completely different story: no body armor, no Mine-Resistant, Ambush Protected vehicles or Humvees, no tear gas — though the insurrectionists themselves happily unleashed pepper spray against the cops whose “blue lives” suddenly no longer mattered.
The last 20 years demonstrates that we as a nation have remembered 9/11 for all the wrong reasons. We’ve used it like an abusive partner uses an argument, to justify one act of violence after another, overwhelmingly against people of color both within our borders and across the world. We’ve used it to justify hatred and a freefall into fascism that is only momentarily on pause. But if we want to keep our democracy, we’d damn well better start remembering 1/6 instead.