Twenty years after the attacks of 9/11, the United States has yet to experience a terrorist strike on the homeland anywhere close to that shocking scale. But few even among the Washington establishment see that as an undisputed mark of triumph. Instead, they grapple with debates over American imperial hubris and overreach. Abroad, successive U.S. administrations shoulder a shared legacy of ruinous wars and failed nation-building. At home, the years since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks have seen the curtailing of civil liberties for some communities, an expansion of mass surveillance and the deepening of political divisions.
Americans broadly supported the George W. Bush administration’s decision to invade Afghanistan, where the ruling Taliban had given sanctuary to al-Qaeda. The punitive mission turned into something far greater than an anti-crime raid against a militant outfit operating in rustic obscurity.
Bush declared the advent of a global “war on terror,” warning every nation that “either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” The American war machine was deployed across a wide swath of the planet and got mired after two regime-changing invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq. The United States built clandestine networks to detain, rendition, interrogate and, yes, torture suspected Islamist extremists. From the military facility in Guantánamo Bay to cells in Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison, keeping America safe meant installing a security apparatus with fuzzy international legality and documented human rights abuses.
The American public grew desensitized to the protracted battles fought in its name, which directly caused the deaths of at least 900,000 people and cost American taxpayers some $8 trillion, according to an analysis by researchers at Brown University. U.S. troop casualty numbers over the past two decades — there were more than 7,000 U.S. service members killed in post-9/11 war operations — remain a fraction of those from earlier major American war efforts. Drone strikes and myriad clandestine operations may have upended the lives of civilians on the ground in far-flung countries, but faded into the background of American life.
“A ‘humane’ form of control and surveillance is taking place beyond America’s borders, with death and injury increasingly edited out of public view. And the improved humanity of our wars, ostensible and real, is not without its vices,” wrote Yale historian Samuel Moyn and author of the new book, “Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War.” “Old empires justified brutal acts in the service of human civilization and progress. Our version of ‘humanity’ helps compensate for our wars’ extension in time and expansion in space.”
Yet as U.S. officials came to recognize, rather than neutralizing the threat of Islamist extremism, American counterterrorism efforts at best made it more diffuse. In some instances, most notably in Iraq, U.S. actions helped fuel radicalization and laid the foundations for the rise of the Islamic State. In Afghanistan, Washington’s strategists must stomach a bitter failure. The Taliban will mark this weekend’s 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks back in power, with top ministers in their new government including a figure on the FBI’s most wanted list.
On the home front, the “war on terror” led to a rapid expansion of the American security apparatus. The Patriot Act was passed less than two months after 9/11, granting the government significant new powers to monitor and spy on U.S. citizens and residents, paving the way for warrantless searches of phone records and emails in certain instances. Much to the ire of left-wing activists, the reconfiguring of national security priorities led to the creation of the controversial Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and also saw the dramatic militarization of U.S. police forces, with the Pentagon transferring some $1.6 billion in military equipment to local departments.
In 2013, National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed to three journalists, including one from The Washington Post, how the U.S. government had built a vast global surveillance system, empowered by secret legal authorities, to essentially have the capacity to monitor whole populations. To many analysts now, the digital spying architecture that emerged was the precursor to a new global paradigm.
“When state intelligence systems led, driven by a preoccupation with counterterrorism, the private sector followed,” wrote Wesley Wark, senior fellow at Canada’s Center for International Governance Innovation. “The corporate world may eventually use drones to bring parcels to our doorsteps, but what it really grasped was the potential for mass data surveillance and analytics to find, target, exploit, and keep consumer audiences, aided by the rise of social media platforms for expansive advertisement.”
The U.S. government reaction to 9/11 was “not just a series of haphazard policies or incidental responses, but a profound ideological construct that affected our entire political and legal culture,” Baher Azmy, legal director for the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has challenged the U.S. government repeatedly over the past two decades, told Today’s WorldView. He added that to face a terrorism threat that was seemingly “everywhere, invisible and superhuman,” the United States set about constructing a “maximal security state.”
After al-Qaeda’s brazen slaughter of thousands of Americans, the spotlight turned on Muslims living in the United States. In the culture, a whole community was stigmatized; in society, Muslim Americans coped with widespread religious profiling, racism and discriminatory monitoring by police. As the U.S. right stokes anti-Afghan refugee sentiment, the climate today is not much improved from the height of U.S. operations against al-Qaeda. According to Pew polling, the belief among Americans that Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence is higher now than it was in the months immediately following 9/11.
That feeds directly into the present political climate. In his new book, “Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump,” journalist Spencer Ackerman drew a line between the aftermath of 9/11 and the rekindling of a certain brand of xenophobic nativism in the United States. Donald Trump “understood something about the War on Terror that [liberal internationalists] did not,” Ackerman wrote. “He recognized that the 9/11 era’s grotesque subtext — the perception of nonwhites as alien marauders, even as conquerors, from a hostile foreign civilization — was its engine.”
So, too, did a cast of far-right extremists who have launched deadly attacks within Western societies in recent years. Prime-time right-wing pundits on U.S. television now echo white-nationalist rhetoric about the “great replacement” of white society, a kind of extremist view that arguably would have been kept far from the mainstream two decades ago.
“The anti-Muslim propaganda and conspiracy theories that eventually merged into the great-replacement narrative were in many cases inadvertently aided by counterterrorism policies that muddied the distinction between Islamist terrorism and Islam,” wrote Cynthia Miller-Idriss in a recent essay in Foreign Affairs.
The events of Jan. 6 and the growing militarization and radicalization of the far right have belatedly turned officials in Western capitals on to the real threat posed by domestic extremism. But no one expects the sort of counterterrorism response mustered two decades ago.
“As someone who has worked on national security issues in the U.S. government for more than a decade, I’ve concluded that the U.S. ‘war on terror’ launched in the wake of 9/11 has left us unprepared for the domestic threat that grows by the day,” Jason M. Blazakis, a former counterterrorism official in the State Department, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed. He warned that “we must confront the real possibility that our next 9/11 could arrive from within.”