Fifteen years ago the US lost almost 3,000 people in the attacks of Sept. 11. Since that time, deaths in what we know as the Muslim world, in strife largely precipitated by the American response to 9/11, number in the millions. No one can plausibly argue that any of us is safer for all the bloodshed.
The 9/11 attacks were unprecedented only in scale, but the response was to abandon all historical precedent, along with constitutional procedure, and commence campaigns of military aggression abroad while curtailing civil liberties at home. Together, the cost has been into the several trillions of dollars. The damage has been far greater than Osama bin Laden ever dared dream.
One is moved to wonder what might have happened, and how safe or unsafe the world would be now, if America had taken a different route — if, for example, rather than accepting that everything had been changed by the attacks, Americans had determined that terrorism wasn’t going to change anything in a material way.
What if we had reacted the same way we did after the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma in 1995 — a political act — or the 1901 assassination of President McKinley by an anarchist? What if, that is, we had treated the 9/11 carnage as what it was, a crime, rather than as an act of war? As a crime, it was monstrous. Treated as war, the event became what its perpetrators desired.
The questions about what might have happened, like all the what-ifs of history, cannot be answered definitively. It is even tempting to suggest that matters couldn’t be any worse. They could be, though, and there is every reason to suggest that they may become worse.
How can things get worse?
Now imagine the international response. The US would be using its veto power in the United Nations Security Council to ward off resolution after damning resolution. The European Union, and perhaps others, would impose humiliating, Iran-style trade sanctions on America. That’s for starters.
Let’s say, though, that Trump is not elected. Let’s say Hillary Clinton is, and as she promises, she carries on the legacy of Barack Obama. That means continuing to bomb at least six countries; continuing to spy on every American citizen every day, quite illegally and unconstitutionally; continuing drone warfare, the practical expression of a policy of daily assassinations; continuing suppression of the free press; and, like Obama, continuing to take loads of money from large financial interests and looking the other way on questions of bankruptcy law, criminal liability for bank fraud, and meaningful regulatory reform.
It would mean continuing the legal fiction of holding people as “unlawful enemy combatants,” including, assumedly, those at Guantanamo Bay. This contrivance provides for holding people indefinitely, in secret, without charges and without most of the usual protections of criminal defendants — on grounds that do not have to be specified. Adding insult to injury, the government calls them “detainees,” rather than prisoners, which is what they are.
This path is, of course, not sustainable. It does, however, comport with American tradition. It continues a long, sad train of imperialistic and jingoistic mistakes, from Tippecanoe and Wounded Knee to Montezuma and My Lai. What it violates is not American history, but American ideals.
American ideals are mostly lost on the rest of the world. It’s the history that is real, and the history is that of a typical empire, now in decline and struggling to maintain its economic hegemony through military means. It is a sorry sight.
Had the American leadership responded to 9/11 rationally, legally, and responsibly, the world would be a different place today. Iraq, obviously, would not have been invaded for a second time. Afghanistan probably would not be still torn by war, and Pakistan might not be so troubled and troublesome. Syria might be in one piece, and Europe might not be struggling with an influx of destitute refugees and insecurity. This is speculation, but it is, in fact, probable.
The question becomes, what to do now? We should have learned long ago not to give in hastily to the urge for war. We certainly should have learned that, when war achieves no result and produces, not peace but more war, the way to build peace is to stop making war.
The Republicans have not learned any of that. The Democrats seem to know it, but political exigency says they are accused of being “soft,” so they’d better be hard.
So it all drones on. Eventually the public, without official leadership, will sicken of the whole mess and demand an end to it. More war will come to the kind of inconclusive, anticlimactic end that sets the stage for yet more war. President Obama’s $1 trillion nuclear-arms buildup will make the prospect not less likely, but more horrifying.