On Sept. 11, 2001, the United States suffered the worst terrorist attack in its history and the most serious assault on its territory since Pearl Harbor. Not since the War of 1812 had a government building in Washington, D.C., been damaged by a foreign enemy. Twenty years later we are still grappling with the consequences of that tragedy. As we pause to remember the nearly 3,000 people who died that day, we must also consider its consequences.
The terrorist attacks galvanized American resolve to punish the perpetrators, no matter how long it took. In his address to Congress on Sept. 20, 2001, President George W. Bush prepared Americans for a long struggle. “Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there,” he declared. “It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.” He had formally declared the “global war on terrorism” (GWOT). What may have begun as a useful metaphor soon became a strategic imperative. Once a peripheral threat, terrorism now became an overriding concern. The Pentagon even created a Global War on Terrorism Service Medal.
Those of us who study violent extremism disliked GWOT from the start. Terrorism is a tactic employed by many actors, not an entity that can be attacked. Even more worrying than the vagueness of GWOT was its insistence on defeating “every terrorist group of global reach.” That imperative guaranteed perpetual war and gave the government a dangerous latitude to wage it.
The concerns about GWOT were soon born out. Bush used it to justify two wars followed by costly nation-building missions he had sworn to avoid. The U.S. and its NATO allies invaded Afghanistan to oust the Taliban and prevent the country from being used as a terrorist haven. No sooner had American troops entered Kabul than the administration began preparations to invade Iraq. Despite the lack of clear evidence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction or ties to al Qaeda, GWOT provided a pretext for the invasion.
Both wars were disastrous. Eager to attack Iraq, the Bush administration installed a corrupt Afghan government and by December 2002, had just under 10,000 troops in Afghanistan. The Taliban recovered and gradually recaptured territory. The troop surge in 2009 slowed their advance but could not reverse the trend. The U.S. hung on for another decade until President BidenJoe BidenTrump endorses challenger in Michigan AG race On The Money: Democrats get to the hard part Health Care — GOP attorneys general warn of legal battle over Biden's vaccine mandate MORE withdrew U.S. forces to end what he called America’s “forever war.” The 20-year conflict cost the United States $2.313 trillion and the lives of 2,448 service personnel.
The invasion and occupation of Iraq fared little better. Removing Saddam Hussein upset the balance of power between Iraq and Iran. Anger at the American occupation and the corrupt government it helped install encouraged support first for al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and then for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which remains active to this day. As of 2020, the Iraq War cost $2 trillion, and the lives of 4,598 service personnel. Debt (including interest) from all post-9/11 conflicts will reach $6.5 trillion by 2050. Our great-grandchildren will be paying for the GWOT. What good might have come from spending that money on domestic programs?
Sept. 11 has had a profound effect on life at home as it has on foreign policy. In the wake of the attacks, Congress created the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to enhance interagency cooperation and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to improve information sharing. It also hastily passed the USA Patriot Act, which gave law enforcement enhanced surveillance powers, allowed secret, warrantless searches and permitted indefinite detention of immigrants without trial. Twenty years after the terrorist attacks, the FBI enjoys what one journalist described as “vast and largely unrestricted power” to interrogate and even spy on terrorist suspects, often on flimsy pretexts. Such action compromises our civil liberties without making us safer.
Paranoia about terrorism has contributed to Islamophobia and anti-immigrant feeling. Hate crimes against Muslim Americans increased from 28 in 2000 to 481 in 2001. Incidents declined in subsequent years but remained well above pre-9/11 levels, only to spike again in 2016 following the San Bernardino and Pulse nightclub attacks. In 2015, then-candidate Donald Trump called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” A week after taking office, Trump kept his promise by signing “Executive Order 13769: Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States.” The order reduced the number of refugees to be allowed into the U.S., suspended admission of most Syrian refugees, and banned for 90 days entry of certain aliens from seven majority Muslim countries. The order was subsequently revised and modified, but its core message remained: Muslims were suspect. Islamophobia fed into the growing wave of white supremacy sweeping the country.
Since 9/11, fear of terrorism has generally exceeded the threat it actually poses. The one-year odds of being killed by a native-born terrorist are 1 in 43.8 million; the odds of being killed by a foreign terrorist, 1 in 104.2 million. The one-year odds of being killed by another American with a firearm are 1 in 23,439. Clearly, we worry about the wrong things. Nonetheless, the federal government has spent $948 billion on DHS and $731 billion on law enforcement, states and municipalities billions more. Some of this expenditure funded necessary improvements to airport and infrastructure security, but much of it has been wasted on placebo measures that make us feel safer without actually protecting us.
“Fear,” an old Dutch saying has it, “is a bad counselor.” For 20 years we have heeded its advice far too often. Islamist terrorism is a persistent security problem, not an existential threat. We are in far greater danger from domestic extremism. The enduring lesson of 9/11 is: face our problems without letting fear dominate our lives. Otherwise, we pose a far greater danger to ourselves and our neighbors than the terrorist ever could.
Tom Mockaitis is professor of history at DePaul University and author of “Violent Extremists: Understanding the Domestic and International Terrorist Threat.”