It’s been 18 years since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. On one hand, the extreme jihadist groups behind the attacks are making headlines again thanks to President Donald Trump’s attempt to sneak them onto U.S. shores to negotiate an Afghanistan peace deal with them. Yet on the other hand, this set of violent extremists are once again threatening global security.
Oh, and by the way, this isn’t the only threat to global security.
A day that lives on in infamy
I still remember where I was 18 years ago this morning. I left the house early, took the bus to school, and made it to my first period (Geography/“World History Lite”) classroom early. The teacher had the radio on. The host was talking about planes crashing into the World Trade Center in New York City.
What the hell was happening? As the day went on, a clearer picture emerged of what was happening on the other side of the continent on September 11, 2001.
As we first wondered why airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center’s twin towers, then why a shadowy terrorist network based in Afghanistan launched attacks targeting New York City and the D.C. region, counterterrorism experts wondered why it took a day of coordinated attacks on America’s east coast for the world to finally take this threat more seriously.
A dawn of a new war… And the beginning of “the forever wars”
The warning signs abounded. Even before then President George W. Bush received a CIA briefing on August 6, 2001, titled, “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.,” the Bush White House was warned by top intelligence officials of al Qaeda’s determination to launch terrorist attacks inside the U.S. Even before then, President Bill Clinton and his administration struggled with the rising threat of al Qaeda as the nation witnessed an attempted attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, suicide bomb attacks on the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania on August 7, 1998, another series of attempted attacks on U.S. targets in 1999 and 2000, and the bombing of the USS Cole on October 12, 2000.
And yet, on September 11, 2001, al Qaeda finally succeeded where they previously tried and failed. From here, we know how this story goes. 19 hijackers killed themselves and 2,977 innocent people by taking over four planes. The al Qaeda hijackers succeeded in attacking the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but passengers on the fourth plane stopped the planned fourth attack in Washington, D.C., and the fourth plane instead crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
After taking a more laid back approach to jihadist extremism, the Bush administration rushed to appear “tough on terrorism” by pushing Congress to pass the USA PATRIOT Act to expand law enforcement’s investigative and surveillance powers, launching what was supposed to be a targeted invasion of Afghanistan to crush al Qaeda and overthrow the Taliban regime that was harboring al Qaeda’s leaders, and began making the case for a second war in Iraq to curtail then dictator Saddam Hussein’s alleged stockpiling of “weapons of mass destruction”. At the time, it seemed like Bush’s “War on Terror” brought America together under the common cause of defeating the villains who brutally attacked our own people. Instead, “the forever wars” would change the country and the larger world in a way these leaders didn’t imagine.
Why couldn’t I ask why?
Kids do the craziest things when they enter adolescence, and much of that “crazy” tends to involve the traditional teenage rebellion. In that respect, I was no different from other American teenagers. It’s just the way I rebelled that would forever change the course of my family’s lives.
When the U.S. rushed to invade Afghanistan, I feared for the people there. But then the Taliban regime fell, and then I wondered whether I was wrong to doubt the war effort. Yet when the Bush administration then started talking about invading Iraq, my doubt went into overdrive. I found the local Pacifica station on my radio dial, found actual reporting in the states and abroad that contradicted the White House’s “weapons of mass destruction” claims, and
All this pissed my mother off… That is, my independent thinking, not the nation’s leaders lying the country into war. She forbade me from listening to that Pacifica station. She sought to limit my ability to access the internet. She didn’t even like me watching the PBS station on TV! She demanded answers on where her “good Christian son” went, and… Well, you now know where this story goes.
Déjà vu? (We can actually choose not to let history repeat, but will we?)
We now see the consequences of our actions (and in certain cases, our inaction) in the last 18 years. Contrary to Bush’s promises of noble “regime change” and swift victory, “Mission Accomplished” has gradually morphed into a resurgent al Qaeda that may be eyeing a new jihad against the rest of the world, an unrepentant Taliban that’s still angling to fully retake power in Afghanistan, and two concurrent wars that have killed 480,000 to 507,000 people and cost the U.S. some $5.9 trillion along the way.
If anything, these “forever wars” have resulted in more severe instability in the Middle East, new terrorist threats (like ISIL/ISIS/Daesh) emerging, closer ties between our fossil fuel dependence and our foreign policy, and a growing and quite harrowing trend of sectarian violence around the world that’s gone beyond a narrow band of jihadists who distort Muslim theology to justify terrorism to the current emerging threat of fascists who claim “Christian Identity” to justify terrorism. And if the world’s leading polluters fail to take sufficient action on climate change soon, it’s likely we’ll see greater global instability that will fuel further violence.
At the very least, it’s hard for me to ignore the eerie parallels between the missed warning signs then and the missed warning signs now. Thus far the nation hasn’t suffered an attack as severe as September 11 since that day, but we have repeatedly suffered mass shooting attacks throughout this decade.
Some 18 years after the scariest second day of school I’ve ever experienced, much has changed, but certain aspects of life feel so similar. We actually know plenty about what the hell is happening, but it remains to be seen what (if anything) we do about it. Some 18 years after the nation suffered the worst terrorist attack in our history, we now face the grave dangers of climate crisis and sectarian violence, and we’re stuck asking how many more attacks it will take before we take these crises head-on.
Cover photo by Bill Biggart, licensed under Creative Commons, and made available by Cliffords Photography and Flickr.