Thirteen Years Later, We’re Still Fighting the 9/11 War

And it shows no sign of ending soon.

I was twelve years old when those two planes flew into the Twin Towers and turned the country upside down. 2,996 people were dead. More attacks seemed imminent. Jon Stewart cried on television. The United States was ready to fight back — but how? And against whom? It was a strange, confusing, and frightening time to be an American.

This was the world in which my generation began its political education. It was like a switch had flipped, with all the rules suddenly reset and reshuffled. I didn’t realize it at the time, but in retrospect, the adults had little more idea what was going on than we did.

We invaded Afghanistan; we toppled the Taliban. We established a Department of Homeland Security and developed a vast, new intelligence apparatus to fuel it. We overturned some laws and rewrote many more. In a national paranoia, we glued our eyes to a color-coded terror warning system and — when enough people said it was the right thing to do — we invaded Iraq.

We declared war on a vast, transnational network of extreme jihadi organizations. We launched thousands of drones into the sky and hovered them over isolated hamlets, seeking to kill terror at its source. We passed death sentences on Pakistani villagers from 7,500 miles away.

We did it all — continue to do it — so we can feel safe again.

Today, an eighteen-year-old American serviceman had not yet begun grade school when the World Trade Center tumbled down. The average jihadi, not subject to the same minimum terms of enlistment, was likely even younger.

These young Americans can’t remember a time our nation wasn’t fighting in Afghanistan. These even younger Arabs can’t remember further back than Abu Ghraib, or the Haditha Massacre, or the errant drone strikes that have happened too often in too many places.

For both these combatants, the “post-9/11" world is the only one they’ve ever known. As the cycle of retaliation, reprisal, and extremist regeneration continues, it becomes harder to see how this might end. How the wide-ranging conflict, begun thirteen years ago, might ever draw to a close.

It’s telling that, on the eve of the 9/11 anniversary, President Obama announced both an expansion and indefinite commitment to operations against ISIS. To be clear, the breadth of the ISIS threat is real: this is a horrifying proto-state controlling “a volume of resources and territory unmatched in the history of terrorist organizations.” The organization must be scattered; its leadership must be killed.

And yet, it’s also true that ISIS would not exist without the collision course set by 9/11. Many current ISIS fighters are the veterans (and sons of veterans) of the virulent strain of Sunni extremism that took root in Iraq following the topple of Saddam. These fighters stole the lives of many U.S. servicemen until they were finally stopped and routed

But they didn’t disappear. Instead, they fled to Syria. Regrew. Expanded. Sharpened their message. Amplified their hatred of the West. In time, once they got strong enough, they returned to Iraq. And now, officially, so have we.

I’m not sure how this circle can be broken, but I hope to help find the answer. We must learn how to safeguard our own security without treading so heavily on the liberty of others; how to destroy the United States’ self-declared enemies without sowing a generation of new ones. Otherwise, we will never be able to break free of 9/11's terrible gravity to see whatever world lies beyond it.

As today’s twelve-year-olds take part in 9/11 remembrances and memorials, they will be commemorating a tragedy that happened before they were born, yet whose legacy continues to touch every aspect of their lives.

When I have kids, I want things to be different.

Follow E.T. Brooking on Twitter. Read more at Interesting Times, a blog about policy, technology, and life in the 21st century.

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Image credit: Reader’s Digest back cover, November 2001.

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