Commemorating the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on U.S. centers of commerce and military might that left nearly 3,000 dead means reevaluating many goals, many missions. Among them: our declared war on terrorism, a commitment President George W. Bush correctly warned would be long in the undertaking — and that he soon undermined by taking his eyes off the terrorists behind the 9/11 attacks and invading Iraq, upsetting the balance of Mideast power in ways that imperil us today.
Gauging goals means gauging other presidential administrations, including the Trump administration that negotiated de facto U.S. surrender terms with the Taliban. And it means gauging the Biden administration’s precipitous withdrawal, even though chaos was always guaranteed in such an evacuation. Let no one claim the sacrifices of the 13 U.S. service members killed on Aug. 26 were in vain amid a remarkable airlift of some 120,000 people out of harm’s way, including U.S. citizens and Afghan refugees.
To a degree, the war on terrorism was a qualified success. It drove the Taliban into the hills, prevented further major terrorist attacks on our soil from abroad, and pursued and killed terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants. Yet it never exterminated the Taliban and always allowed for their return the moment we quit Afghanistan. If the outcome of the war on terrorism now seems murky, many of us must accept some of the blame. Except for those who saw loved ones serve in Afghanistan, Iraq and other volatile parts of the Mideast, few back home sacrificed. At one point, President Bush told us to shop. Never were we asked to pay a “patriot’s tax” to help fund a two-front war with an all-volunteer army. Instead, we kept cutting taxes, incurring billions in debt to heap on our progeny.
Post-9/11 analyses confirmed a multitude of federal agencies failed to work in tandem — arguably how repeated warnings of 9/11 terrorism were overlooked. We’ve seen the same bureaucratic bumbling in our government’s response to everything from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 to the deadly pandemic in 2020. We saw it in the national paralysis that allowed a homegrown insurrectionist attack on the U.S. Capitol to violently unfold over several hours.
For some of us, the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by foreign terrorists on the Pentagon and World Trade Center and the Jan. 6, 2021, attack by domestic terrorists on the Capitol now tragically bookend America’s decline. Do we honor the 2,977 dead of 9/11 and some 7,000 U.S. military personnel lost in war by vilifying our fellow citizens? Are we up to the new threats to our national security inherent in climate change, cyberattacks and renewed terrorism, including domestic terrorism, or shall we delude ourselves and further imperil our children and grandchildren? Perhaps we can still redeem ourselves in the eyes of the fallen by assimilating Afghan refugees into America in ways that don’t further the resentment and hatred so many thought they were fleeing.