“On Tuesday morning, a piece was torn out of our world. A patch of blue sky that should not have been there opened up in the New York skyline . . . the heavens were raining human beings. Our city was changed forever. Our country was changed forever. Our world was changed forever.” So wrote Jonathan Schell in the first issue of the Nation after Sept. 11, 2001.
At the Nation, we watched the events unfold on television — horrified, saddened, angry. People wept — and at the same time took notes and started writing; we had an issue closing the following day. We learned that our communications link to the outside world was severed — our phone lines had run under World Trade Center 7. So, in those first days, we had no incoming calls or Internet. Just a feeling of uncertainty and a knowing sense that our world had been violently altered.
Nearly 10 years later, in a dramatic yet sober Sunday evening address, President Obama announced that Osama bin Laden, perpetrator of the Sept. 11 attacks, was dead, the result of a U.S. military action. He reminded us of how, in those grim days after Sept. 11, “we reaffirmed our unity as one American family. . . and our resolve to bring those who committed this vicious attack to justice.”
He described the capture and killing of bin Laden as the “most significant effort to date in our efforts to defeat al-Qaeda.” And he reaffirmed that this country will never wage a war against Islam. For that reason, Obama rightly said that bin Laden’s “demise should be welcomed by all those who believe in peace and human dignity.”
Now, with bin Laden buried at sea, it is time to end the “global war on terror” we have lived with for a decade. It is time to stop defining the post-Sept. 11 struggle against stateless terrorists as “war.” Framing the fight against terror as a war was a conscious decision made by President Bush, Karl Rove and others in those first days after Sept. 11 — a decision that destroyed the unity President Obama reminded us of in his address.
The “war” metaphor — as retired American ambassador Ronald Spiers wrote in 2004 — “is neither accurate nor innocuous, implying as it does that there is an end point of either victory or defeat.. . . A ‘war on terrorism’ is a war without an end in sight, without an exit strategy, with enemies specified not by their aims but by their tactics.”
The Bush administration used the “war” as justification for undermining the best of America’s principles. We have witnessed the abuse of international human rights standards, the unlawful detention of thousands of women and men, and the condoning of torture.
And though President Obama has wisely refused to refer to our actions against terrorist cells as a “war on terror,” he, too, has used the “war” as justification for the expansion of his executive authority, whether through the use of military tribunals or the embrace of indefinite detention.
Today it is time not only to end the use of the term “war on terror,” but to end the war itself.
It is time to bring our troops home.
The success in eliminating bin Laden should provide courage and political space to the Obama administration to bring the Afghan war to an expeditious end by reducing U.S. forces in Afghanistan and accelerating regionally supported peace talks among the many factions there.
As the Nation’s Robert Dreyfuss notes, “the war in Afghanistan, which long ago lost any sane rationale, no longer has even a pretext: Even if the Taliban take over – a highly unlikely prospect, even were the United States to pack up and leave — there simply won’t be any al Qaeda to provide shelter to.”
Indeed, al-Qaeda has largely been destroyed. It is highly fragmented, with membership only in the hundreds, hardly the centralized threat that justifies the deployment of hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops. With the death of its leader, it may never find a central figure to rally around again.
President Obama and his team have a unique opportunity to reset the terms of the national security debate; the end of bin Laden has given the administration more credibility — and political capital — on national security issues.
Yes, we all live in the shadow of Sept. 11 — a crime of monumental magnitude. And yes, it would be the height of naivete to deny that terrorist cells with lethal capacity are scattered around the world. But terrorism is not an enemy that threatens the existence of our nation. Nor can it be successfully countered by the large-scale use of force or by occupying other countries or by eliminating all the places terrorists can hide. Rather, it is by the wise use of intelligence, police work and homeland security that we can keep our nation safe. Our response to terrorism cannot not risk undermining the very values that define America in our eyes and in the eyes of the world.
Bin Laden and the core group of al-Qaeda who planned and executed the Sept. 11 attacks have largely been destroyed, but at an unnecessarily high price: two ongoing land wars, more than 50,000 soldiers killed or wounded, hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis, Afghans and Pakistanis killed, trillions of U.S. dollars spent and the loss of American standing in the world that has yet to be fully restored.
This past decade has been a crucible for the nation, and through it we have learned that a hyper-militarized war without end does not strengthen a democracy; it strangles it.
Though he has continued far too many Bush-era national security policies, President Obama appears to understand how wars threaten to undo reform presidencies and undermine the best values of the country. If we as citizens challenge the “war” framing, if we demand that our representatives stop couching virtually all foreign policy discussion in terms of terrorism, we have a chance to build a new and more effective national security template.
Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor and publisher of The Nation. She writes a weekly online column for The Post.