Most adult Americans will never forget the shocking, horrifying images they saw that sunny,.blue-sky September morning, when two airliners filled with passengers hit the twin towers in New York, another struck the Pentagon in Washington, D.C and a fourth crashed in Stonycreek Township, Pennsylvania. Some 3,000 people died that day.
We solemnly honor them, their families, their friends, the First Responders and two decades later, the toll of the two wars that followed.
My interest here is how and why after 9/11, previously latent or fringe American feelings and emotions began to became mainstream and politically potent. All human psyches over time can be affected by major crises, group reactions, changing moods and the firm, repeated convictions of their leaders. But, in 2021, the national spirit of the United States is fractured and much weakened.
First, Americans on 9/11 lost a belief ingrained since birth, that our homeland, the Continental United States (CONUS) ,was invulnerable to the death and destruction of foreign attacks. For 187 years, we had become accustomed to US forces engaging enemies on battlefields in Europe and Asia, not the CONUS.
Second, 9/11 also introduced a fear of Muslim terrorists, who eventually came to be promoted and accepted by many Americans, as a generic enemy: Arabs/Muslims.
Ethnic malice wasn’t new to the United States. Much earlier, the US Civil War and its aftermath froze an older, often violent, sense of white racial superiority over Blacks, which persevered into the 21st Century. Racial targeting of African Americans was violently manifested in 2020 (George Floyd and Brianna Taylor murders), but expanded to include Latinos and Asians as well as Arabs/Muslims. Antisemitism also surfaced as a smaller part of the movement against non-Christians and people of color.
This article addresses the 9/11 attacks and the George W. Bush Administration. A second will discuss the Obama and Trump Administrations and any additional slings and arrows our national spirit may have received.
The White House Policy Mood on 9/12/2001
America’s leaders as well as the population at large were traumatized by 9/11. But, “shock and awe” was in the air and swagger seemed called for at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue..
The Cold War had ended over a decade before and the Soviet Union was no more. The US stood astride the world. However, ten years had passed since the US military had last led its Allies in war and defeated a dictator, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. However, that conflict ended with a cease-fire agreement not a much tougher, more satisfying surrender ceremony removing Saddam from power.
In fact, President George H. W. Bush was repeatedly criticized for not sending American forces into Baghdad after the Iraqi military withdrew from Kuwait to force Saddam out and achieve a more total victory. The explanation was simple::neither President Bush nor Secretary of State Colin Powell had any interest in occupying another quagmire.
After 9/11, his son, President G. W. Bush, in office only 8 months, confronted critical choices after 9/11, but in a much more hawkish political environment with a fearful population in need of reassurance. .
Bush’s dilemma was not easy: should America attack Al Qaeda and its Taliban hosts in Afghanistan with limited objectives and highly selective targeting, or commit to all out war against them, but what about Iraq?
Those closest to President Bush immediately following 9/11 were Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz. All were hawks, but Wolfowitz offered a strategic concept for the entire Middle East. An academic and veteran of earlier Republican administrations, Wolfowitz twenty-five years earlier, had written a paper describing Iraq as a serious threat to the United States, particularly under Saddam Hussein, BUT Iraq also offered a singular advantage.
Wolfowitz believed the Middle East could be refashioned one country at a time, starting with Iraq. And for several decades he had successfully promoted his paper’s thesis among prominent NeoCons. The President and Rumsfeld and many others, were converts.
Thus, in an excess of imperial hubris, the President announced the national security policy that would remain actively in place through three administrations: the Global War on Terrorism. Its mission was sufficiently vague to fit Afghanistan, Iraq and almost any other country that might have terrorists.
The Administrations was so fixated on Iraq, that it made an initial effort, widely reported in the media of the day, to name Saddam as the 9/11 Perp and/or an immediate, deadly threat to the US (WMD, fuel rods, chemical weapons trucks, rumors Saddam and Bin Laden had collaborated etc). None were true, but we invaded Afghanistan in fall, 2001 and Iraq in spring, 2003.
What the GWOT Wrought:
The military and national security agencies swung into action and quickly developed plans to implement the GWOT. DOD managed the two invasions while a complex of highly classified programs were approved by the White House to crush/deter terrorism. They included secret detentions, extraordinary rendition (kidnapping), enhanced interrogation (torture) and delivery of suspects to third countries for questioning that were more inclined to the use of torture. Secret US foreign detention facilities (Black Sites) were also created.
The underlying objective for all these arrangements was to place these captives and their interrogations and any judicial processes, beyond the reach of the US Constitution, US criminal justice system, the Federal Courts and international law. A similar explanation lay behind the 2002 establishment of a terrorist prison on the US Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. 780 people were imprisoned there of whom 9 died. Today, only 39 prisoners remain,
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was established on November 25, 2002 to provide the vehicle and the personnel to exert domestic authority in support of the GWOT and later the Patriot Act. Moreover, through the Border Patrol, it was responsible for preventing illegal foreign entry into the United States. DHS eventually incorporated the US Coast Guard, the Transportation Safety Administration and the authority to decide who entered the country.
During the violent summer months of 2020, following the May murder of George Floyd, an African American, by a white police officer, outrage erupted in cities across the country. Armed DHS agents, among other Feds, were deployed to American cities to quell unrest, exacerbated by the intrusion of armed militias into otherwise peaceful citizen demonstrations. They would play major roles during the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the capitol.
Only seven months after the invasion of Iraq, the repulsive, sadistic abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American military men and women began. Photos of the night shifts’ activities between October – December 2002 at the Abu Ghraib Prison surfaced to the disgust of millions and to the moral shame of America.
And twelve more years were to follow.
Tom Timberman is an Army vet, lawyer, former senior Foreign Service officer, adjunct professor at GWU, and economic development team leader or foreign government advisor in war zones. He is the author of four books, lectures locally and at US and European universities. He and his wife are 24 year residents of Kent County.