In the 13 years since 9/11, the United States has become less free, more impoverished, more militarized and, worst of all, a country built on fear.
If America is still the ‘shining city on a hill’, it’s only because of the klieg lights twinkling on the razor’s edge. It’s been 13 years since 9/11, and America is not acting like a nation that defeated Osama bin Laden. After endless bloody wars, trillions spent on security, the destruction of the Constitution, and the creation of a militarized surveillance state, American citizens, to say the least, look like the losers in the war on terror. .
Before the smoke cleared at the World Trade Center, President Bush launched the war in Afghanistan and followed it soon after with a second front, in Iraq. Years after becoming the longest-running conflicts in US history, these are still dragging on, redefining the “quagmire”. Bin Laden killed 2,996 people on 9/11 and in the years that followed, twice as many American soldiers died responding, and a hundred times as many civilians.
US forces are now fighting all over the world. Although “marketed” as wars that would make America safer, the resulting chaos spawned countless new terrorist groups like the Islamic State, which even al-Qaeda has disavowed as too extreme. The military response to bin Laden has created an objectively less stable world, where Islamic terrorists now control large swathes of the Middle East, North Africa and even urban areas of nuclear-armed Pakistan. The perception of America as a stabilizing force for good has been badly damaged and its reputation has crumbled while its rampant intelligence gathering has alienated its closest allies.
In fighting these wars, the US government turned its back on a long tradition of defending human rights and embraced torture as a legitimate tool of the state. This week alone we learned that the practice was even more extreme than previously feared, and that suspects were often brought “to the brink of death”. America built the infamous Guantanamo Bay prison and dozens of other “black” sites. The rights protected by the American Constitution have been violated covertly in some cases, more openly in others. Drones have murdered American citizens without trial. Millions have been placed on secret watch lists. The government started listening to everyone’s phone calls and opening everyone’s mail. Over $2.5 billion has been seized by police in warrantless searches of citizens not charged with any crime. The same citizens who are now lined up and searched at airports, train stations, subways and football matches. This progressive, bipartisan deprivation of everyday freedoms has continued unabated since 9/11.
The United States has become less free, less open, more militarized. From coast to coast, in small towns like Ferguson, Mo., local police stockpiled billions of dollars worth of sniper rifles, armored vehicles and even bayonets, then pointed the grenade launchers at their own citizens. When the State Department built a new mission at the United Nations, the largely windowless, blast-proof concrete bunker looked like something that belonged in Kandahar, not downtown Manhattan. But this is America now.
Bin Laden’s greatest triumph, however, may be economic. In 2004, he claimed his ultimate goal was to bankrupt America like the mujahideen did to the Soviet Union. US federal debt has tripled to more than $17 trillion since 2001. The endless war on terrorism has eaten up trillions from the US economy. As the military-industrial complex metastasized, even President Obama had to acknowledge that America’s infrastructure lags behind China’s. The nation responsible for getting humanity to the moon is now choosing to spend its money on over 3,000 national intelligence organizations and not on new dreams of reaching Mars.
The American people are exhausted and bruised. As President Obama now hesitates to return to the Middle East, he only observes the collective fatigue of voters. Naturally, the United States is withdrawing from the world. Unfortunately, its traditional rivals in Moscow and Beijing fill the void. Who could have imagined 13 years ago that Russia would be able to invade Europe, or that Washington would be willing to let it?
In 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote: “There are two things that a democratic people will always find very difficult: starting a war and ending it. As difficult as it is, America must put an end to this war started by Bin Laden. They must end it, knowing that they were not the victors, knowing that thousands of soldiers died for lands the enemy now controls, knowing that their own rights were ironically sacrificed in defense of freedom .
America is bloodied, intimidated and exhausted. But he is not defeated. It is not too late to recognize that the real enemy was not hiding in Abbattabad. The real enemy was fear. It was fear that drove Bush to invade Afghanistan and Iraq, which consumed trillions of dollars in taxes and stripped citizens of their rights. Jan Egeland, the Norwegian politician and director of Human Rights Watch, understands this. In the aftermath of the Oslo terror massacre in 2011, he said: “Their goal is to create shock and fear and get us to abandon our liberal values…and lure us into their dark side of the playing field…we shouldn’t let them win.”
It’s not too late for America. They can end bin Laden’s war and finally, after 13 long years, triumph over fear.
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