We rarely understand a moment until it has passed. That is especially true in times of collective trauma. Twenty years ago, 19 young male terrorists associated with al Qaeda hijacked four planes in the United States, turning them into missiles that devastated lower Manhattan and the Pentagon. One of the planes, probably aimed at the U.S. Capitol, crashed in rural Pennsylvania. In all, 2,977 Americans died on Sept. 11, 2001, in the events that millions of people watched in horror, again and again, on television.
Then-Vice President Dick Cheney described a “new kind of war against a new kind of enemy.” He warned a shocked nation that the “terrorists who struck America are ruthless, they are resourceful, and they hide in many countries. They came into our country to murder thousands of innocent men, women, and children. There is no doubt they wish to strike again, and they are working to acquire the deadliest of weapons.”
President George W. Bush called for aggressive American military intervention to disable terrorist sponsors abroad — the “axis of evil” — before they came to our shores. That was the justification for invading Afghanistan and fighting a wider War on Terror. That was also the reason for creating a Department of Homeland Security and increasing domestic surveillance authorities for various arms of the U.S. government. The pressure to act was difficult to resist, even for a generation that remembered the difficulties of war in Vietnam and the abuses of surveillance powers in the early Cold War.
We have learned a lot in the two decades since the planes struck our cities, and it is time to take stock. The terrorists were ruthless and resourceful, as Cheney explained, but they were far less powerful than he predicted. They did not have access to “weapons of mass destruction,” as our leaders claimed repeatedly. That turned out to be wrong. The terrorists were not as numerous as we feared. Few Americans have died since 2001 from foreign terrorist attacks on our soil, and our preventive measures are only partially responsible. Groups such as al Qaeda were dangerous, but we exaggerated their lethality, at grave cost to our democracy.
The naysayers about impetuous American action have proven prescient; the chest-thumpers have led us astray. The Costs of War Project at Brown University estimates that the United States has spent more than $6.4 trillion fighting the War on Terror. At the same time, the nation’s infrastructure and schools have suffered from under-investment, especially relative to peers in Europe and Asia. Middle- and lower-income Americans have seen their real income, health care and life expectancy decline. And communities across the country have failed to prepare for climate change.
Domestic law enforcement has become more militarized over the past two decades, but crime rates have risen and violent white supremacists threaten innocent Americans. A few thousand of them stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, injuring 138 police officers as they threatened to lynch the vice president and speaker of the House. It is hard to deny that we have wasted our national treasure chasing the wrong enemies, as our nation corrodes from neglect and hate within.
Where we have spent the most, we have little to show. More than a decade of war in Iraq has increased the influence of our enemies in Iran. Two decades of occupation in Afghanistan have returned the Taliban to power, opened a massive refugee crisis, and increased Russian and Chinese influence in Central Asia. The rapid collapse of the U.S.-supported government in Kabul diminishes American credibility around the world. The scenes of Afghan citizens clinging to the wheels of fleeing American planes capture our abject failure to reduce suffering since 9/11. We might have made it worse, especially for those foreign partners who trusted us to protect them.
Before 2001, the United States was a stable democracy and an international power without peer. During the previous decades the United States had supported a flowering of democracy in many regions, and at home our society was becoming more open and prosperous. The 1990s were the decade of the Silicon Valley boom and the first budget surpluses in more than a quarter-century. The world seemed to be going our way.
Perhaps that was the problem. The hubris of success and the fear of loss shifted the course of history rapidly. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, American leaders made choices that undermined the stability, economy and democracy that fueled our successes. The way we fought the terrorists harmed the core values we wanted to preserve.
We started wars without enough allies or consideration of the consequences. We apparently lied about intelligence, reduced citizen rights, and adopted a militaristic, bullying attitude toward politics — “You are with us or you are against us,” President Bush proclaimed. If you were deemed an adversary, we were coming for you, with swagger and self-righteousness.
We spent trillions of dollars to dominate perceived enemies, not to improve ourselves. Just look at the gargantuan military bases we built in Bagram and Baghdad, and compare them to our crumbling schools filled with teachers and students under attack from their own governors for demanding protections against COVID-19. The simultaneous return of the Taliban and the pandemic shows how self-defeating our politics has become.
The cruel irony is that the terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001 may have achieved what they wanted: the decline of American power and the crackup of democracy. The hijacked planes did not bring these changes; our misguided reactions did. That is the suicidal component of collective trauma.
After 20 years, we must break out of this cycle. The answer is surely not more of the same, echoed in partisan recriminations and personal attack tweets. We have an opportunity to heal by recognizing our mistakes and shifting directions. Failure can inspire success. We need leaders at all levels in our society who stop defending the decisions of the past 20 years and start asking how we can do better. We must emphasize the possibility and newness of our current moment, born from the hard-earned lessons of two dismal decades.
After 9/11, countless students came to me, asking how they could serve their country. We sent too many of them to war. During our pandemic, many students are asking the same question today. We must encourage them to renew our democracy by spreading hope to diverse citizens for improved lives. We need to invest in a healthier, better-educated, sustainable country. Our young people have few memories of the hijacked planes. They are ready to escape the lingering trauma of terrorist fears. Let’s please help them.
Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is a professor in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and the Department of History. He is the author of numerous books, most recently, “The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America’s Highest Office.” He hosts a weekly podcast, “This is Democracy.”