What We Have Learned Since 9/12

The real date in 2001 that aches for American reflection is not 9/11, but 9/12. This was the day after the tragic attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon when President George W. Bush announced to the nation that "these were not just acts of terror, they were acts of war." In that moment the "War on Terror" was born, and this imagined warfare has shaped U.S. foreign policy ever since.

But this war need not have happened. The small jihadi network identified with Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda could have been targeted and brought to justice in a more simple and direct way. This was the manner in which this network's previous terrorist acts had been pursued, including the bombing of the US embassies in Africa and the earlier attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, each with a fair amount of success. Accused terrorist conspirators such as Ramsi Youssef were caught, brought to trial in New York City courtrooms, and given lifetime sentences in US prisons. Youssef's uncle, Khalid Shaik Mohammad, alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, was also captured in a small secret operation and is now awaiting trial in the US detention center in Guantanemo Bay, and Osama bin Laden was killed by an elite squad of Navy Seals in Pakistan earlier this year.

None of these terrorists were caught through war. In fact, one could easily argue that rather than diminishing terrorism, the War on Terror helped to spread it. The language of global war was, after all, the jihadi message of Osama bin Laden. When American leaders adopted that language themselves, and then attacked and invaded two Muslim nations in the spirit of warfare, it helped to give legitimacy to the jihadi message. Any potential Muslim supporter who might have been wavering in deciding whether to give bin Laden's message credibility must have been impressed that America itself began to validate the jihadi view of the world.

If the War on Terror was so ineffective at best, and counterproductive at worse, why did American policymakers adopt this view of the world? One answer is that it suited the mood of the post 9/11 American public that was crying out for revenge and for a way of understanding the magnitude of the attacks. The idea of war seemed to give an explanation.

Another answer is that the neo-conservative inner circle of the George W. Bush administration was hankering for war in the Muslim War in order to impose control over the erratic politics of autocrats such as Saddam Hussein, and secure their oil. In this sense, the invasion of Afghanistan was meant as a prelude for the eventual assault on Iraq.

Whatever the reason for the commitment to warfare, from the moment that the U.S. military began attacking Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, there was no easy retreat. Once the president of the United States had proclaimed a "war on terror," and it was clear that this phrase was not a metaphor -- as the Afghan attack amply demonstrated -- the war was on.

Once war was proclaimed, and even more important, once the idea of it descended into the thinking of millions on both sides of the conflict, the image of war was not easily dispelled. This was especially so when casualties began to mount. No leader would want to abandon fighting too quickly and risk the appearance that the lives of those soldiers and civilians caught in its crossfire were in vain.

Thus war had a curious way of creating its own momentum. But taking warfare for granted poisoned the political atmosphere. It helped to set up the dichotomous we-they, all-or-nothing political posture that has bedeviled American political life in the post 9/12 years. Once confrontation is presented in the absolutistic images of warfare, it is easy to see opponents as enemies, locked into a nonnegotiable engagement intent on mutual destruction. Not everyone on the planet adopted such a view; there were large numbers of Muslims in the Middle East and a considerable number of Americans and Europeans in the West who resisted such thinking. To the credit of the Obama administration, the term "War on Terror" was abandoned months after Barack Obama took office.

Still, much of US foreign and domestic policy and the calculations of international policymakers continue to be based on the assumption that the US is engaged in great moral battles of global proportions. In recent American politics the warfare has turned within. The president is imagined as a satanic foe, and Muslim enemies are thought to be hiding behind every corner.

Somehow, in some way, without quite knowing how and when it happened, the public perceptions have made a subtle but dramatic shift. Discontent has crystallized into fear, and fear has descended into a world of grand and enduring conflict in which the most mundane of policy differences are magnified into images of cosmic war. Alas, that is the true legacy of 9/12, and because of its heritage we are still at war.