This Sunday is the tenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks. A decade later, much has changed both in the lives of Swarthmoreans—somehow I don’t remember being assigned this much reading in 5th grade—and that of the nation. These changes will be the subject of the countless sets of remarks of politicians and pundits slated to honor the anniversary. Invariably, such remarks will emphasize the sacrifice of servicemen and women, the effectiveness of the Bush and Obama Administrations in preventing another attack and the need to ‘stay focused’ on the War on Terror.
In terms of the public and political response to 9/11, this body of commentary is sure to be uncritical. What I want to suggest is that Americans deserve more than an uncritical analysis of the heroism of our military and the necessity of continual war; in fact, the very essence of democracy demands a more rigorous critique of how we have responded to this traumatic event.
Like many of you, I remember the day of the attacks well. Living an hour north of New York City, my community was directly affected: a number of local firefighters and policemen died, including the father of a classmate. The immediate response of the American people—typified by the heroism of the first responders—was compassionate, heartfelt and moving. Countless American flags sprung up along the streets of my small town, and the local grocery store imprinted the American flag onto its shopping bags. The outburst of patriotism seemed to represent the strength of our local and national communities.
Unfortunately, this patriotic sentiment was quickly exploited to achieve an illegitimate and indefensible political agenda. Within hours of 9/11, Vice President Richard Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld were brainstorming about how the attacks could be used to justify the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, a neoconservative geopolitical goal going back more than a decade. Exploiting the climate of fear and unquestioning patriotism, the Bush Administration embarked on a shameful propaganda campaign to obtain public, congressional and international approval for an invasion of Iraq. The two foundations of the campaign –the contention that Sadam Hussein was responsible for 9/11 and that he controlled weapons of mass destruction—were known to be false by the government of both the United States and United Kingdom, our major ally in the war.
The invasion of Iraq represents a significant failure in American democracy that deserves serious study. Despite the fact that the Bush Administration presented no evidence to forward its case for war, the press—even liberal institutions such as The New York Times—fell prey to the ‘with us or against us’ pressure of the administration that equated dissent with insufficient patriotism. Similarly, the Democratic Party, fearful that it would appear inadequately ‘tough on terror,’ failed to effectively challenge the fallacious contentions of the Bush Administration. In short, the most fundamental democratic institutions—an inquiring press and opposition party—were rendered impotent in our moment of greatest need.
Consequently, the United States embarked on an essentially unilateral, unequivocally illegal and extraordinarily costly invasion and occupation of a sovereign nation that posed absolutely no security threat. Thus far, the war has led to the deaths of between 500,000 and 1,000,000 Iraqi civilians, and 4,500 Americans.
The ill-advised Iraq war is not the only example of fear-induced hysteria getting the best of us in the post-9/11 period. In Afghanistan, what began as an invasion to target al-Qaeda turned into a misguided exercise in nation-building. A decade later, despite the death of Osama bin Laden and the fact that the latest attempted terrorist attacks have come from Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan, 100,000 American troops remain in Afghanistan. Tragically, tens of thousands of innocent Afghanis have died.
In our domestic politics, the fear of another attack led us away from core American values. The PATRIOT Act represented the most significant erosion of civil liberties since the dark days of McCarthyism. Similarly, Muslims faced unwarranted harassment, which culminated in attempts to prevent the construction of Mosques not only in New York City, but also in Tennessee and California. Perhaps most disconcertingly, the use of torture—prohibited by international treaties to which the United States is signatory—was frighteningly accepted by a majority of Americans. Clearly, the shock of 9/11 weakened our democratic resolve.
Because democracies thrive on critical self-analysis, Sunday must be a day to seriously consider the choices we have made over the past decade. As infrastructure crumbles and more and more Americans live without jobs, access to quality education, health care, or in poverty, we ought to ask whether the $4T devoted to war over the past decade could have been better invested in our people. Similarly, our mourning of the victims of 9/11 should be accompanied by a sincere effort to understand the pain and suffering the U.S.-caused deaths of nearly 1,000,000 innocent Afghani, Iraqi and Pakistani civilians has wreaked upon these societies.
Just as a healthy capacity for self-reflection is essential for individuals, so too is it for nations. On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, Americans ought not only to praise our heroic first responders, but also to think critically about the decisions we have made over the past decade in the response to the horrific attack of that day.
Sam Sussman is a junior transfer student of politics, philosophy and literature. Send him your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.