I have little love in my heart for “War on -noun-” campaigns. It is impossible to define victory or defeat in a “war” where the enemy is an ambiguously defined bogeyman rather than a real force. Moreover, such messaging is too often a cover to enable the abuse of power. “Moral equivalent of war” framing is almost by definition a pretext, an excuse to suspend principle and engage in behavior we would ordinarily not allow. The War on Drugs, for instance, has served since its Nixon-era inception as carte blanche for overpolicing, racial profiling, and mass incarceration, and its manifest failure – drugs of every kind are more plentiful and available in every city in the U.S. than they were in the 1970s, and the demand for them is met by massive and terrifying criminal organizations – serves as its own justification. In such a struggle there is always another chapter that can justify the continued suspension of our rights and good governance, and failure is easily framed as illustrative of the need for still-greater compromises.
The most far-reaching of such campaigns is the War on Terror, whose tragic and shocking birth occurred 17 years ago this month. I will say this for its name: the War on Terror at least includes actual wars, waged most notably in Afghanistan and Iraq but also in lower-profile struggles throughout the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, with even smaller intelligence operations all over the world. But while the phraseology is somewhat more appropriate, the real enemy – terror – is much harder to pin down. The relevant events in question are not the topplings of organizations or governments, but a state of no longer being “terrorized.” The problem thus remains the same: in a war against an enemy as vaguely defined as “terror,” what is victory? What is defeat? And how, after nearly two decades, can we know if either has taken place?
Those questions seem to circulate every year around the anniversary of 9/11, and 2018 is no exception. Pessimists, such as Stephen Marche at Foreign Policy and Nabih Bulos at the Los Angeles Times, have ample fodder to make the case for defeat, using everything from the shattered image of American invincibility to the persistent influence of al-Qaeda around the world. More optimistic views, such as that expressed by Jim Geraghty of National Review, point to the government’s success in preventing terror attacks on American soil, the mostly (though certainly not wholly) intact status of American civil liberties and the return of domestic calm.
In truth, the question of whether the War on Terror has been won is impossible to satisfactorily answer. The central aim of the War on Terror – make sure this never happens again – has thus far held up, but it is impossible to say whether it will forever, and in the meantime costs continue to pile up. In the years since 9/11, there have been undeniable victories and defeats – many times the latter have actually grown out of the former, and vice versa – and it is possible we will never know in our lifetimes which were greater on balance.
As Marche explains in his Foreign Policy piece, the attacks on September 11th were primarily exercises in psychological rather than physical warfare – terrorism in the truest sense of the word. To the masterminds of the attack, the physical damage and loss of life were not only desirable ends in their own right but as instruments to achieve a larger goal of instilling fear in the United States and around the world to strengthen their political position and advance their religious dogma. To evaluate victory or defeat on that front, we must ask ourselves: are we still terrorized?
For those of us who remember that day, personal experience is the easiest place to start in answering that question. I was in second grade on 9/11. Despite the best efforts of my parents, teachers, and other adults, fear of another attack was always close at hand. The faces of Osama bin Laden and Mohamed Atta were inescapable on television and the Internet and burned into the collective imagination, pervading even everyday activities.
I had a habit as a child of playing basketball on a hoop in our yard, usually with my father or with other boys in the neighborhood, but occasionally alone, until well after sundown. As darkness moved in and moonlight peeked through the trees, the fears that accompany nightfall for all children would set in, and I would imagine all sorts of ghoulish faces and creatures emerging from the darkness – mountain lions, ghosts, kidnappers (the early 2000s child-abduction panic was also in full swing) and, for a brief time in those years after 9/11, Osama bin Laden. I remember expressing this fear to my mother, who calmly explained that bin Laden was hiding in a cave in Afghanistan and nowhere near our house, and that the only thing I should be worried about was finishing my homework. I knew this to be true, but the image of bin Laden kept creeping up in dreams and moments of dread. He was not so much a man to me as a wraith, a totem of insensate evil who could be present at any moment.
It’s easy to look back at such things as flights of fancy from an imaginative child, and view the cessation of such fears as coinciding simply with me growing up, but I was hardly alone. The potential for imminent attack was a national obsession. Alleged sightings of bin Laden, reported by fully grown adults, poured into news outlets from California to Florida and everywhere in between. Less credulous Americans still maintained a heightened suspicious awareness, a state of mind which Geraghty describes well: “Anthrax and the fear of white powder in the mail. Every forgotten backpack being treated as a bomb, sudden evacuations of subway stations and office buildings and malls and airports.” This was not just a reaction in policy and attitudes but a broad-based psychological impact of the attacks: a study by the New England Journal of Medicine found that a stunning forty-four percent of randomly sampled Americans exhibited substantial symptoms of stress reactions after the attacks, while 90 percent experienced one or more lesser symptoms. Forty-seven percent actively worried for the safety of their families and loved ones.
Those who would argue that 9/11 had done permanent damage to the American psyche must acknowledge that we have, as a society, moved back from this level of fear and paranoia. The faces of bin Laden and others do not haunt the nightmares of children the way they did for children of my generation. In 2001, the possibility of a terrorist attack was the preeminent American fear, a constant subject of conversation and for many, a daily source of worry. These days, it is simply one of many issues Americans think and worry about at a distance, competing with government corruption, natural disasters, economic insecurity, and more. Moreover, concern with security against terror has become largely correlated with partisan identification – Republicans worry more about security when Democrats are in office, and vice versa. In other words, the specter of terror has been from being a constant shadow over American life to a mere hot-button issue that can be cynically exploited for political purposes – not ideal, but progress nonetheless. A country in which terrorism is regarded in much the same way as the economy, healthcare, crime, or intragovernmental controversy is in a more reasonable place than one in which the mere thought of that same threat causes observable adverse mental health effects. America will likely never return to its pre-9/11 attitudes, but the diminishing of post-9/11 paranoia is an undeniable public good which has emerged from the War on Terror.
The question that then emerges is: what else might we have lost in our search for safety that would render this a pyrrhic victory or even an outright defeat? The fascistic dystopia that many civil libertarians feared would emerge after the attacks did not manifest. America’s core freedoms remain strong from a legal standpoint, if not a cultural one. However, it would be irresponsible not to note the way post-9/11 security measures collided with the Internet Age to create a massive surveillance state upon which we still struggle to impose limits, and which in the wrong hands creates nearly limitless potential for abuse. We likewise cannot overlook the way our nation blithely greeted the targeted assassination, without due process, of an American citizen, and the creation of a secret presidential “kill list.” Even the more comical and trivial aspects of the post-9/11 security apparatus, such as our awkward and embarrassing encounters with the TSA (nicely parodied here), are affronts to American liberty and dignity.
Not only have Americans accepted these measures without much controversy, poll data shows many of us believe the government has actually not gone far enough in preventing terrorist attacks. And while Americans may be less fearful of potential terror attacks than they were in the aftermath of 9/11, strong majorities across partisan lines maintain that proactive attack prevention must continue to be a top priority. Americans no longer think about terrorism on a moment-to-moment basis, but the memory of 9/11 remains a powerful motivating factor.
Likewise, the American response to terror abroad gets more difficult to evaluate when one looks outside the narrow concern of preventing another attack. Yes, al-Qaeda’s nest in Afghanistan has been broken, their ranks scattered and divided, their leaders eliminated. And in pursuing this goal, we created a power vacuum whose aftermath we have spent over a decade and a half trying to contain, at the cost of thousands of lives and billions of dollars. In hopes of preempting a WMD-armed terrorist haven in Iraq, we kicked off an eight-year conflict which gave birth to al-Qaeda in Iraq and its successor ISIS, who have only now been dispatched this year. Hunting down the same forces in Syria has left behind an Iranian- and Russian-aligned Assad regime as the strongest Levantine power standing.
Meanwhile, we have engaged in low-profile conflicts from Libya to Somalia to Yemen, conducting relentless bombing campaigns aimed at stamping out al-Qaeda’s cancerous outgrowths even as we create openings for new militants to take their place. These conflicts barely register on America’s political radar, to the point where a Nobel Prize-winning president synonymous in his acolytes’ imagination with peace was still bombing seven countries in the last year of his second term. From Nigeria to Indonesia, al-Qaeda and ISIS-aligned groups have sprung up to bring terror to new corners of the world. At home we may feel safer, but all around us the world is aflame.
That the innocents who suffer in these circumstances are not Americans does not make their plight any less real or consequential – especially since some of them are still dying at American hands. They, too, live in the shadow of 9/11, and for them the War on Terror still rages as powerfully as it did that day 17 years ago. If Americans can collectively shrug at the prospect of near-constant war, waged against faceless enemies with vaguely defined goals, which continues to destabilize the world and directly or indirectly harms multitudes of innocents, all in an effort to make ourselves feel safe, then 9/11’s damage to the American psyche may have been permanent – and the War on Terror may well be lost.
America suffered an unprecedented and horrific tragedy on 9/11, and had both a right and responsibility to protects its people in the aftermath. The heroism of countless first responders and ordinary citizens on that day, and of scores more military and law enforcement personnel in the years since, must be celebrated and should never be forgotten. And we owe it to them to develop a security policy that not only prevents attacks against our nation, but guards against threats to liberty at home and finds lasting solutions to terror and instability around the world. Then, and only then, will we be able to say we won the War on Terror.