As the anniversary of 9/11 approaches, candid public discourse about the “war on terror” is long overdue. Hindsight offers an opportunity to take a fresh look at the official pronouncements and unheeded dissent that came soon after September 11, 2001. The outlooks that prevailed at the time set the stage for historic disasters.
“Our responsibility to history is already clear — to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil,” President George W. Bush said in a speech at the Washington National Cathedral three days after terrorists took nearly 3,000 lives. A week later, he told a joint session of Congress that the impending war “will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.”
Such resolve was inspiring to many. But the president’s vow to “rid the world of evil” was an announcement of an absurd goal, and it amounted to declaring endless war on an inexhaustible supply of enemies. Yet in a suddenly traumatized nation, suffused with grief, any concerns about such rhetoric were apt to seem beside the point; they got short shrift in the nation’s capital and news media.
At the start of October, a week before the U.S. attack on Afghanistan began, Detroit’s Catholic Bishop Thomas Gumbleton warned that “those who would rush to war and escalate the cycle of violence are completely out of touch with reality and with lessons of history.”
Some who had lost loved ones on 9/11 also made pleas for restraint. “Bombing Afghanistan is just going to create more widows, more homeless, fatherless children,” said Judy Keane, whose husband Richard died in the World Trade Center. Another bereaved woman, Amber Amundson, addressed government leaders directly after her spouse, Craig, perished in the attack on the Pentagon: “If you choose to respond to this incomprehensible brutality by perpetuating violence against other innocent human beings, you may not do so in the name of justice for my husband.”
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), the lone member of Congress to vote against a blank check for war, endured widespread vilification and death threats after she stood on the House floor on Sept. 14 and said: “Some of us must urge the use of restraint. Our country is in a state of mourning. Some of us must say, let’s step back for a moment, let’s just pause, just for a minute, and think through the implications of our actions today, so that this does not spiral out of control.”
But such pleas were to no avail. And when the first U.S. missiles struck Afghanistan, a Gallup poll found that “90 percent of Americans approve of the United States taking such military action, while just 5 percent are opposed, and another 5 percent are unsure.” A frenzy for war had taken hold, despite the fact that none of the 9/11 hijackers were Afghans. In effect, the United States proceeded, with displaced rage, to inflict collective punishment on vast numbers of Afghan people.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld offered absolution for any killing by U.S. armed forces. “We did not start this war,” he said at a news briefing. “So understand, responsibility for every single casualty in this war, whether they’re innocent Afghans or innocent Americans, rests at the feet of the al Qaeda and the Taliban.”
The Taliban regime in Afghanistan quickly fell, but the president who claimed that America had a responsibility to “rid the world of evil” was just getting started. Along the way, the U.S. government set up “black sites” in secret locations to confine and torture alleged terrorists, sometimes with mistaken identities, while warfare expanded to other countries.
A few months before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, writer Joan Didion captured in one sentence the essence of a quickly calcified set of assumptions: “We had seen, most importantly, the insistent use of September 11 to justify the reconception of America’s correct role in the world as one of initiating and waging virtually perpetual war.”
More than 20 years later, are we ready to face up to the human toll of the war on terror?
Counting only the people killed directly in U.S. wars since 2001, researchers at the Costs of War project at Brown University have estimated those deaths at between 906,000 and 937,000. The study found that at least 364,000 of them were civilians who lost their lives “in the violence of the U.S. post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere.” Meanwhile, “several times as many more have been killed as a reverberating effect of the wars.” The estimated number of people directly and indirectly killed is 4.5 million.
In a speech at the United Nations two years ago, shortly after withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, President Biden said: “I stand here today, for the first time in 20 years, with the United States not at war. We’ve turned the page.” But even as Biden spoke, the Brown University project was reporting that U.S. counterterrorism military operations “have become more widespread in recent years” and “the war continues in over 80 countries.”
The types of military responses that 9/11 set in motion have evolved over time, now with relatively few “boots on the ground” and heavy reliance on what Biden has called “over the horizon” air power. For the most part, the American public is left in the dark — unable to give the informed consent of the governed, while Washington’s bipartisan allegiance to perpetual war persists in the name of stopping terrorism.
Remaining unaddressed is an insight that retired U.S. Army Gen. William Odom shared during a C-SPAN interview in 2002. “Terrorism is not an enemy,” he said. “It cannot be defeated. It’s a tactic. It’s about as sensible to say we declare war on night attacks and expect we’re going to win that war. We’re not going to win the war on terrorism.”
But labeled as a war on terror, open-ended U.S. warfare remains so routine that no one asks anymore when it might end.
Norman Solomon is cofounder of RootsAction.org and executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy. His book “War Made Invisible: How America Hides the Human Toll of Its Military Machine” was published in June.
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