It has been a decade since 3,000 Americans were murdered on September 11, 2001. Much of what followed in the subsequent ten years was unexpected, while what was expected did not happen.
On October 7, just 26 days after the attacks, the United States went after both al-Qaida and its Taliban sponsors when it invaded Afghanistan, removing the Islamists from that nation’s major cities in little more than two months. By early 2002, the “graveyard of empires” had a UN-approved constitutional government—despite earlier warnings of Western failure and a Soviet- or British-like disaster. We forget now the national euphoria over Donald Rumsfeld’s “light footprint” and a new way of war characterized by a few Special Forces troops with laptops who guided volleys of GPS munitions from jets circling above.
The subsequent decision to invade Iraq in March 2003 ended entirely the fragile national consensus about retaliation that had followed 9/11. When the Bush administration hyped WMD as the real casus belli—and subsequently found none in Iraq—most forgot that Congress had, in bipartisan fashion, voted for war on over 20 other counts as well, all legitimate and unquestioned. But the postwar insurgency took over 4,000 American lives and tore Iraq apart, and the war would be written off as misguided, unnecessary, and “lost.” Suddenly too few troops was the charge. Traditional army divisions once again replaced Special Forces as the conventional wisdom.
Few thought, in the dark days of December 2006, that General David Petraeus and his Surge would save Iraq. But the U.S. military met the Islamists’ call for thousands of terrorists to flock to Anbar Province—defeating them, killing thousands, and thereby weakening the global jihadist cause. Soon Iraq, the “bad” war theater, would grow relatively quiet, while the once “good” effort in Afghanistan went bad. Over 100,000 Western NATO and American troops are still fighting a resurgent Taliban in a decade-long effort to prop up the government of Hamid Karzai.
Osama bin Laden had bet that the entire Arab world might erupt in turmoil after the U.S. response to 9/11. It did, but not until a decade later—and neither in anger at the United States, Europe, or Israel, nor at the urging of a reclusive bin Laden in the final months of his life. The more pundits sternly lectured that the “Arab-Israeli” conflict was at the heart of 9/11-generated Islamic anger at the West, the more that conflict seemed irrelevant to the violence that swept the Arab world from Tunisia to Syria. Bashar Assad is now shooting hundreds on sight—his own people, not soldiers of the IDF.
We can disagree about the causes of the popular protests against Middle East strongmen and about whether constitutional government, Mogadishu-like chaos, or Islamic theocracy will arise from them. We can argue, too, over whether we’re witnessing the long-promised ripples of reform in Iraq that would follow from the demise of Saddam Hussein. We do know, though, that the al-Qaida dream of mobilizing the Muslim world against the West—supposedly decadent and imploding, from Europe to America—never quite happened.
Conventional wisdom following 9/11 insisted that we would soon find bin Laden but that his insidious terror gang would probably remain a permanent existential threat that could repeat the September attack almost whenever it wished. A near-decade after the fall of the Twin Towers, bin Laden was finally killed by the United States, right under the nose of his Pakistani hosts. His radical Islamic terrorist organization is in disarray, without popular support, without the old covert subsidies from the oil sheikdoms, and without the infrastructure and networks that it would need to repeat its 9/11 attacks. The old post-9/11 warning of “not if, but when”—referring to the inevitability of more terrorism here—has not panned out so far, mostly because of heightened security at home and the projection of U.S. force abroad.
Following 2001, two additional and unforeseen shifts split America asunder, and—in equally unexpected fashion—are now bringing it back together again. Few initially objected to the Patriot Act, Guantánamo Bay, renditions, military tribunals, preventive detention, or the use of targeted assassinations via Predator drone. Even enhanced interrogations did not provoke polarizing national debate, given the extraordinary popularity of George W. Bush until 2003 and the widespread fear of more hijacked jetliners. But the unexpected violence in postwar Iraq, the partisan campaigning of the 2004 presidential election, the Abu Ghraib scandal, and the absence of more attacks politicized the war on terror, and the popular media reduced the Bush-Cheney administration nearly to the status of war criminals, people who had trumped up nonexistent threats in service to a police state desperate to invent enemies.
What happened next was even more bizarre. In his first year in the White House, Barack Obama, a war critic and foe of the Bush-Cheney protocols, embraced or expanded almost all of the measures that he and the liberal wing of the Democratic Party had long derided—apparently because what had seemed superfluous to a candidate proved essential to a president with responsibility for the safety of 300 million people. In lockstep, his supporters ceased their outcries about lost civil liberties. What had not long ago been decried as either unconstitutional or useless was suddenly assumed to be both legal and necessary—and surely not controversial enough to prompt questioning of the Obama administration, now the steward of the decade-old protocols.
And so, on the fifth anniversary of September 11 in 2006, the country had become split apart over Iraq, mostly amnesiac about Afghanistan, and receptive to the liberal narrative that the terrorists had won by scaring us into abandoning our values. In contrast, on the tenth anniversary, Americans have come nearly full circle: anxious about renewed violence in Afghanistan, increasingly unconcerned with Iraq, and relieved that postwar homeland security measures have kept them safe.
The common denominator in these ten years? American life under its hypercritical, volatile, and mercurial democracy proves resilient; the Islamic terrorists and their authoritarian sponsors who would destroy it do not. And even after a decade of acrimony, partisan rancor, and stasis, Americans continue to be horrified—and angry—over those who were murdered on September 11. We’ve done our best for ten years to ensure that it cannot happen again.
Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images