The Seventh Anniversary of 9/11
On the Pentagon grounds today, President Bush commemorated a beautiful memorial to the Washington, DC victims of the 9/11 attacks on the seventh anniversary of that day of national infamy. Seven years! Time flies, but what sense can be made of the effort that has transpired to this point?
The attacks of 9/11 galvanized American policy and resulted in a series of dramatic responses of varying effectiveness. Three were discrete and focused; the other more amorphous but pervasive.
The three discrete responses are led by two physical acts of war. The United States first intervened in the civil war in Afghanistan to help dissident groups overthrow the Taliban government that refused to relinquish the Al Qaeda leadership it was protecting from apprehension after 9/11. The Taliban were indeed swept aside, at least temporarily, but they and the Al Qaeda leadership escaped capture, retreated into the rugged no-man’s land along the Afghan-Pakistan border (marked by the Durand Line–a border that none of the tribes in the region honors), and the Taliban have returned to menace the American-backed government in Kabul, presumably aided by their Al Qaeda brethren. NATO members drawn into the fray are increasingly wary of their role, and the historic precedents of outside inteference in Afghanistan’s often violent politics do not bode especially well for this initiative. No one knows–or even dares guess–the eventual outcome in Afghanistan. Could it be another Vietnam-style morass–even one more difficult than Iraq?
The second war, of course, has been the ongoing struggle in Iraq. Although it has subsequently been fairly well established as fraudulent, the underlying claim for that involvement was its ties to terrorism and the “war on terror.” The conduct and outcome of the war, regardless ofother effects, will almost certainly have no particular positive impact on the effort against terrorism.
The third concrete form of reaction was bureaucratic–the consolidation of government efforts inside the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The idea here was to bring together all the government’s often competing assets under one umbrella that could coordinate and make more efficient and effective the government’s response to terrorism and other forms of disaster. Anyone who believes it has been much of a success must also have an abiding belief in the Tooth Fairy.
The fourth and more amorphous effort has been in the bending of rules to accommodate the anti-terrorist effort. Some of these efforts have been annoying but basically innocuous: airport security and the blocking of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House, for instance. Some aspects, however, are more profound, controversial, and at least to some, troubling. These more troubling aspects include infringemnts on the civil liberties of Americans through various forms of surveillence, suspensions (or delays) in habeus corpus, and the like, all justified to remove impediments to the pursuit of terrorists. Possibly most troublesome have been accusations the United States has violated canons against torture of which it is a member in the name of national security.
Have all these efforts brought Americans happiness–or much added security? There are two ways to look at it. There have been no terrorist attacks on American soil since 9/11, an apparent vindication of the effort. The problem is that one cannot demonstrate the efforts have caused the absence of the attacks. The other side of the argument is that Al Qaeda and Usama bin Laden are alive and well somewhere in Waziristan, and that the terrorist threat is as alive and dangerous as it was seven years ago. Certainly, even the most ardent supporters of the various actions lumped together under the rubric of the global war on terror (GWOT) are not willing or ready to declare victory. There is precious little discussion of measurable progress, for that matter.
Is the seventh anniversary a cause for celebration, remorse, or rededication of effort? The new president will inherit the “fruits” of ongoing efforts–two physical wars, a DHS bureaucracy, and assaults on American civil liberties–and have to decide how to proceed. The easiest course is simply to continue doing what has been done to this point, but is that likely? The policies in place are, after all, those of the Bush administration, and both sides in the campaign have distanced themselves as far as possible from those as they can (watch McCain advertisements, and see how often he identifies himself as a Republican). At the same time, each candidate argues he is the proponent of change. Exactly what changes need to be made so that President Obama and McCain can announce real, concrete progress against terrorism on September 11, 2009, the eighth anniversary of the tragedy?