9/11-Two Decades Gone, It’s Time to Evaluate Our Responses
Each year about this time we start to see articles and documentaries about the 9/11 attacks. Now we come to a place where some, increasingly more of us simply were born too late to have direct memories of the day and the very strange weeks and months that followed. I was a well-grown adult at the time.
This year I found a really hard one. Hard to read because it’s a hard look at the big things we got wrong. We better learn. Terrorism is here to stay, but it comes from very different directions. Ideologies, locations, beliefs. How we respond defines us far more than it does them.
I am the author of an oral history of 9/11. Two of my other books chronicle how that day changed the FBI’s counterterrorism efforts and the government’s doomsday plans. I’ve spent much of this year working on a podcast series about the lingering questions from the attacks. Along the way, I’ve interviewed the Cassandra-like FBI agents who chased Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda before the attacks; first responders and attack survivors in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania; government officials who hid away in bunkers under the White House and in the Virginia countryside as the day unfolded; the passengers aboard Air Force One with the president on 9/11; and the Navy SEALs who killed bin Laden a decade later. I’ve interviewed directors of the CIA, FBI, and national intelligence; the interrogators in CIA black sites; and the men who found Saddam Hussein in that spider hole in Iraq.
As we approach the 20th anniversary of 9/11 on Saturday, I cannot escape this sad conclusion: The United States—as both a government and a nation—got nearly everything about our response wrong, on the big issues and the little ones. The GWOT yielded two crucial triumphs: The core al-Qaeda group never again attacked the American homeland, and bin Laden, its leader, was hunted down and killed in a stunningly successful secret mission a decade after the attacks. But the U.S. defined its goals far more expansively, and by almost any other measure, the War on Terror has weakened the nation—leaving Americans more afraid, less free, more morally compromised, and more alone in the world. A day that initially created an unparalleled sense of unity among Americans has become the backdrop for ever-widening political polarization.