Essay by Carlos Lozada. Illustrations by Patrik Svensson. Updated Sept. 3 at 6:00 a.m.Originally published Sept. 3, 2021
Deep within the catalogue of regrets that is the 9/11 Commission report — long after readers learn of the origins and objectives of al-Qaeda, past the warnings ignored by consecutive administrations, through the litany of institutional failures that allowed terrorists to hijack four commercial airliners — the authors pause to make a rousing case for the power of the nation’s character.
“The U.S. government must define what the message is, what it stands for,” the report asserts. “We should offer an example of moral leadership in the world, committed to treat people humanely, abide by the rule of law, and be generous and caring to our neighbors. . . . We need to defend our ideals abroad vigorously. America does stand up for its values.”Story continues below advertisement
This affirmation of American idealism is one of the document’s more opinionated moments. Looking back, it’s also among the most ignored.
Rather than exemplify the nation’s highest values, the official response to 9/11 unleashed some of its worst qualities: deception, brutality, arrogance, ignorance, delusion, overreach and carelessness. This conclusion is laid bare in the sprawling literature to emerge from 9/11 over the past two decades — the works of investigation, memoir and narrative by journalists and former officials that have charted the path to that day, revealed the heroism and confusion of the early response, chronicled the battles in and about Afghanistan and Iraq, and uncovered the excesses of the war on terror. Reading or rereading a collection of such books today is like watching an old movie that feels more anguishing and frustrating than you remember. The anguish comes from knowing how the tale will unfold; the frustration from realizing that this was hardly the only possible outcome.
Whatever individual stories the 9/11 books tell, too many describe the repudiation of U.S. values, not by extremist outsiders but by our own hand. The betrayal of America’s professed principles was the friendly fire of the war on terror. In these works, indifference to the growing terrorist threat gives way to bloodlust and vengeance after the attacks. Official dissembling justifies wars, then prolongs them. In the name of counterterrorism, security is politicized, savagery legalized and patriotism weaponized.
It was an emergency, yes, that’s understood. But that state of exception became our new American exceptionalism.
It happened fast. By 2004, when the 9/11 Commission urged America to “engage the struggle of ideas,” it was already too late; the Justice Department’s initial torture memos were already signed, the Abu Ghraib images had already eviscerated U.S. claims to moral authority. And it has lasted long. The latest works on the legacy of 9/11 show how war-on-terror tactics were turned on religious groups, immigrants and protesters in the United States. The war on terror came home, and it walked in like it owned the place.
“It is for now far easier for a researcher to explain how and why September 11 happened than it is to explain the aftermath,” Steve Coll writes in “Ghost Wars,” his 2004 account of the CIA’s pre-9/11 involvement in Afghanistan. Throughout that aftermath, Washington fantasized about remaking the world in its image, only to reveal an ugly image of itself to the world.
The literature of 9/11 also considers Osama bin Laden’s varied aspirations for the attacks and his shifting visions of that aftermath. He originally imagined America as weak and easily panicked, retreating from the world — in particular from the Middle East — as soon as its troops began dying. But bin Laden also came to grasp, perhaps self-servingly, the benefits of luring Washington into imperial overreach, of “bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy,” as he put it in 2004, through endless military expansionism, thus beating back its global sway and undermining its internal unity. “We anticipate a black future for America,” bin Laden told ABC News more than three years before the 9/11 attacks. “Instead of remaining United States, it shall end up separated states and shall have to carry the bodies of its sons back to America.”
Bin Laden did not win the war of ideas. But neither did we. To an unnerving degree, the United States moved toward the enemy’s fantasies of what it might become — a nation divided in its sense of itself, exposed in its moral and political compromises, conflicted over wars it did not want but would not end. When President George W. Bush addressed the nation from the Oval Office on the evening of Sept. 11, 2001, he asserted that America was attacked because it is “the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world, and no one will keep that light from shining.” Bush was correct; al-Qaeda could not dim the promise of America. Only we could do that to ourselves.
“The most frightening aspect of this new threat . . . was the fact that almost no one took it seriously. It was too bizarre, too primitive and exotic.” That is how Lawrence Wright depicts the early impressions of bin Laden and his terrorist network among U.S. officials in “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.” For a country still basking in its post-Cold War glow, it all seemed so far away, even as al-Qaeda’s strikes — on the World Trade Center in 1993, on U.S. Embassies in 1998, on the USS Cole in 2000 — grew bolder. This was American complacency, mixed with denial.
The books traveling that road to 9/11 have an inexorable, almost suffocating feel to them, as though every turn invariably leads to the first crush of steel and glass. Their starting points vary. Wright dwells on the influence of Egyptian thinker Sayyid Qutb, whose mid-20th-century sojourn in the United States animated his vision of a clash between Islam and modernity, and whose work would inspire future jihadists. In “Ghost Wars,” Coll laments America’s abandonment of Afghanistan once it ceased serving as a proxy battlefield against Moscow.
In “The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden,” Peter Bergen stresses the moment bin Laden arrived in Afghanistan from Sudan in 1996, when Khalid Sheikh Mohammed first pitched him on the planes plot. And the 9/11 Commission lingers on bin Laden’s declarations of war against the United States, particularly his 1998 fatwa calling it “the individual duty for every Muslim” to murder Americans “in any country in which it is possible.”
Yet these early works also make clear that the road to 9/11 featured plenty of billboards warning of the likely destination. A Presidential Daily Brief item on Aug. 6, 2001, titled “Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US” became infamous in 9/11 lore, yet the commission report notes that it was the 36th PDB relating to bin Laden or al-Qaeda that year alone. (“All right. You’ve covered your ass now,” Bush reportedly sneered at the briefer.) Both the FBI and the CIA produced classified warnings on terrorist threats in the mid-1990s, Coll writes, including a particularly precise National Intelligence Estimate. “Several targets are especially at risk: national symbols such as the White House and the Capitol, and symbols of U.S. capitalism such as Wall Street,” it stated. “We assess that civil aviation will figure prominently among possible terrorist targets in the United States.” Some of the admonitions scattered throughout the 9/11 literature are too over-the-top even for a movie script: There’s the exasperated State Department official complaining about Defense Department inaction (“Does al Qaeda have to attack the Pentagon to get their attention?”), and the earnest FBI supervisor in Minneapolis warning a skeptical agent in Washington about suspected terrorism activity, insisting that he was “trying to keep someone from taking a plane and crashing it into the World Trade Center.”
In these books, everyone is warning everyone else. Bergen emphasizes that a young intelligence analyst in the State Department, Gina Bennett, wrote the first classified memo warning about bin Laden in 1993. Pockets within the FBI and the CIA obsess over bin Laden while regarding one another as rivals. On his way out, President Bill Clinton warns Bush. Outgoing national security adviser Sandy Berger warns his successor, Condoleezza Rice. And White House counterterrorism coordinator Richard Clarke, as he reminds incessantly in his 2004 memoir, “Against All Enemies,” warns anyone who will listen and many who will not.
With the system “blinking red,” as CIA Director George Tenet later told the 9/11 Commission, why were all these warnings not enough? Wright lingers on bureaucratic failings, emphasizing that intelligence collection on al-Qaeda was hampered by the “institutional warfare” between the CIA and the FBI, two agencies that by all accounts were not on speaking terms. Coll writes that Clinton regarded bin Laden as “an isolated fanatic, flailing dangerously but quixotically against the forces of global progress,” whereas the Bush team was fixated on great-power politics, missile defense and China.
Clarke’s conclusion is simple, and it highlights America’s we-know-better swagger, a national trait that often masquerades as courage or wisdom. “America, alas, seems only to respond well to disasters, to be undistracted by warnings,” he writes. “Our country seems unable to do all that must be done until there has been some awful calamity.”
The problem with responding only to calamity is that underestimation is usually replaced by overreaction. And we tell ourselves it is the right thing, maybe the only thing, to do.
In the 11th chapter of the 9/11 Commission report, just before all the recommendations for reforms in domestic and foreign policy, the authors get philosophical, pondering how hindsight had affected their views of Sept. 11, 2001. “As time passes, more documents become available, and the bare facts of what happened become still clearer,” the report states. “Yet the picture of how those things happened becomes harder to reimagine, as that past world, with its preoccupations and uncertainty, recedes.” Before making definitive judgments, then, they ask themselves “whether the insights that seem apparent now would really have been meaningful at the time.”
It’s a commendable attitude, one that helps readers understand what the attacks felt like in real time and why authorities responded as they did. But that approach also keeps the day trapped in the past, safely distant. Two of the latest additions to the canon, “Reign of Terror” by Spencer Ackerman and “Subtle Tools” by Karen Greenberg, draw straight, stark lines between the earliest days of the war on terror and its mutations in our current time, between conflicts abroad and divisions at home. These works show how 9/11 remains with us, and how we are still living in the ruins.
When Trump declared that “we don’t have victories anymore” in his 2015 speech announcing his presidential candidacy, he was both belittling the legacy of 9/11 and harnessing it to his ends. “His great insight was that the jingoistic politics of the War on Terror did not have to be tied to the War on Terror itself,” Ackerman writes. “That enabled him to tell a tale of lost greatness.” And if greatness is lost, someone must have taken it. The backlash against Muslims, against immigrants crossing the southern border and against protesters rallying for racial justice was strengthened by the open-ended nature of the global war on terror. In Ackerman’s vivid telling — his prose can be hyperbolic, even if his arguments are not — the war is not just far away in Iraq or Afghanistan, in Yemen or Syria, but it’s happening here, with mass surveillance, militarized law enforcement and the rebranding of immigration as a threat to the nation’s security rather than a cornerstone of its identity. “Trump had learned the foremost lesson of 9/11,” Ackerman writes, “that the terrorists were whomever you said they were.”
Both Ackerman and Greenberg point to the Authorization for Use of Military Force, drafted by administration lawyers and approved by Congress just days after the attacks, as the moment when America’s response began to go awry. The brief joint resolution allowed the president to use “all necessary and appropriate force” against any nation, organization or person who committed the attacks, and to prevent any future ones. It was the “Ur document in the war on terror and its legacy,” Greenberg writes. “Riddled with imprecision, its terminology was geared to codify expansive powers.” Where the battlefield, the enemy and the definition of victory all remain vague, war becomes endlessly expansive, “with neither temporal nor geographical boundaries.”
This was the moment the war on terror was “conceptually doomed,” Ackerman concludes. This is how you get a forever war.Story continues below advertisement
There were moments when an off-ramp was visible. The killing of bin Laden in 2011 was one such instance, Ackerman argues, but “Obama squandered the best chance anyone could ever have to end the 9/11 era.” The author assails Obama for making the war on terror more “sustainable” through a veneer of legality — banning torture yet failing to close the detention camp at Guantánamo Bay and relying on drone strikes that “perversely incentivized the military and the CIA to kill instead of capture.” There would always be more targets, more battlefields, regardless of president or party. Failures became the reason to double down, never wind down.
The longer the war went on, the more that what Ackerman calls its “grotesque subtext” of nativism and racism would move to the foreground of American politics. Absent the war on terror, it is harder to imagine a presidential candidate decrying a sitting commander in chief as foreign, Muslim, illegitimate — and using that lie as a successful political platform. Absent the war on terror, it is harder to imagine a travel ban against people from Muslim-majority countries. Absent the war on terror, it is harder to imagine American protesters labeled terrorists, or a secretary of defense describing the nation’s urban streets as a “battle space” to be dominated. Trump was a disruptive force in American life, but there was much continuity there, too. “A vastly different America has taken root” in the two decades since 9/11, Greenberg writes. “In the name of retaliation, ‘justice,’ and prevention, fundamental values have been cast aside.”
In his latest book on bin Laden, Bergen argues that 9/11 was a major tactical success but a long-term strategic failure for the terrorist leader. Yes, he struck a vicious blow against “the head of the snake,” as he called the United States, but “rather than ending American influence in the Muslim world, the 9/11 attacks greatly amplified it,” with two lengthy, large-scale invasions and new bases established throughout the region.
Yet the legacy of the 9/11 era is found not just in Afghanistan or Iraq, but also in an America that drew out and heightened some of its ugliest impulses — a nation that is deeply divided (like those “separated states” bin Laden imagined); that bypasses inconvenient facts and embraces conspiracy theories; that demonizes outsiders; and that, after failing to spread freedom and democracy around the world, seems less inclined to uphold them here. More Americans today are concerned about domestic extremism than foreign terrorism, and on Jan. 6, 2021, our own citizens assaulted the Capitol building that al-Qaeda hoped to strike on Sept. 11, 2001. Seventeen years after the 9/11 Commission called on the United States to offer moral leadership to the world and to be generous and caring to our neighbors, our moral leadership is in question, and we can barely be generous and caring to ourselves.
In “The Forever War,” Dexter Filkins describes a nation in which “something had broken fundamentally after so many years of war . . . there had been some kind of primal dislocation between cause and effect, a numbness wholly understandable, necessary even, given the pain.” He was writing of Afghanistan, but his words could double as an interpretation of the United States over the past two decades. Still reeling from an attack that dropped out of a blue sky, America is suffering from a sort of post-traumatic stress democracy. It remains in recovery, still a good country, even if a broken good country.