On Saturday, Americans will somberly commemorate the 20th anniversary of the cataclysmic blow that changed the United States and many faraway countries in fundamental ways that were impossible to contemplate before the 9/11 attacks. Never in recorded history have a small band of men shook the foundations of a great empire with such alacrity and finality as the 19 young Muslim men did on that September morning in 2001. Never before had the phrase “the barbarians at the gates” carried such meaning as when the four highjacked airplanes blew up our civilization’s virtual walls ushering in the age of globalized terrorism, at the intersection of atavistic hatred and the digital revolution.
Nineteen men, driven by the manufactured rage of a whole generation of preachers of violence and armed with a budget of less than half a million dollars, shattered the thin veneer of our civilization and the brittle foundations of our democracy. We flailed violently. One expeditionary force was sent in the footsteps of Alexander the Great to invade Afghanistan to punish the turbaned men who humbled us and inflict the kind of horrific injury that would deprive them from even thinking of revenge. Another one was sent to Mesopotamia to pacify that ancient land and bestow on it the gift of Jeffersonian democracy. Twenty years later, the Taliban is back in power in Kabul, Baghdad continues to live in the shadow of Tehran, and we are still searching for the missing answers.
The war we declared on terrorism everywhere in the world took us with our prisoners to dark dungeons in foreign lands where torture is called “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Our Justice Department produced “torture memos” that corroded our souls and distorted the English language in ways not even George Orwell could have imagined. At the home front we brandished a militant patriotism and codified it into law where we waged a low intensity war against some of our cherished constitutional values and foundational principles, all in the name of preserving and defending national security “against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
Today, the hell of the last 20 years reveals a long, thin trail of blood connecting New York on Sept. 11, 2001, and the Capitol building in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, via Iraq, Afghanistan and the war on terror. Twenty years ago, the barbarians were at the gates. Today they are among us, within the same fearful city. In the last few years, right-wing violence perpetrated by religious extremists, anti-government radicals and white supremacists killed and wounded scores of civilians and more than any foreign terror group. The FBI, which had to restructure itself 20 years ago to combat al Qaeda, is remaking itself anew to fight the enemy within.
Many years ago, I decided, in a moment of bliss, to embrace America as my new home and final refuge. Today, home is colder and less welcoming; at times it is almost unrecognizable.
Former President Donald Trump and a large swath of Republicans have succeeded beyond their expectations in mainlining nativism, bigotry and white supremacy. For the first time in American history, one of the two main political parties is openly anti-democratic. Many years ago, I decided, in a moment of bliss, to embrace America as my new home and final refuge. Today, home is colder and less welcoming; at times it is almost unrecognizable. Sometimes I wonder whether in my American life which began in 1972, I may have witnessed both the zenith of America’s greatness and the beginning of its slow unwinding.
The peoples inhabiting the majority Arab states have fared much worse than Americans since the ill winds of al Qaeda terrorism ignited U.S. President George W. Bush’s war on terrorism, his invasion of Iraq, along with his quixotic Freedom Agenda that rocked the wobbly foundations of what was left of the Arab state system. The Bush administration’s follies emboldened the atavistic Islamists, the violent and nonviolent variety as well as the ruthless authoritarians dominating most Arab states. When pacifying Iraq proved difficult, and when the strongmen resisted Bush’s admonitions about political pluralism, and when Islamists made major headways in elections, the Freedom Agenda was no more.
The violence and abuse done to every facet of Arab life by successive military and religious predatory classes, with the connivance of a pliant chorus of mostly court intellectuals, was so deep and comprehensive that it inoculated that broken region to any serious reform foreign or domestic. We are not even halfway through the long Arab winter.
The season of Arab uprisings surprised both the Obama administration and the Arab authoritarians. President Barack Obama’s disillusionment with the region was quick and palpable after his initial, but tepid, “new beginning” approach to Muslims, outlined in his famous Cairo speech, and his failure to revive Palestinian-Israeli negotiations when he encountered an immovable object named Benjamin Netanyahu, then prime minister of Israel. What was left of Obama’s standing in the Middle East was trampled upon by Iran’s lisping, long-necked satrap in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad, even after he killed thousands of civilians with chemical weapons.
The uprisings toppled the rulers who have tormented Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen. Ten years on, with the possible exception of Tunisia, those tyrants are gone, but the tyranny lingers on more entrenched than ever. Libya and Yemen descended into civil wars that were made much worse by the intervention of other rival regional powers. On Aug. 14, 2013, Egypt, a major ally of the U.S., witnessed the bloodiest day in the history of its republic when more than 900 civilians were massacred by the security forces, thus cementing the control of the military establishment’s coup that toppled the brief reign of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The violence visited on the Syrian people by the Assad regime and its allies in Iran and Russia is unique in the annals of modern civil wars. The Assad regime used every weapon in its arsenal against the civilian population: fixed wing bombers and helicopters laden with barrel bombs, heavy artillery and Scud missiles, and rockets armed with chemical warheads. The world, including the U.S., watched and decided only to take notes.
The wars waged on the terrorists of al Qaeda and the Islamic State group, the grinding, open-ended struggles in Afghanistan and Iraq in which they appeared to have been conceived and fought as if victory is not an option, exhausted America and drove three presidents to search for an exit. America’s autocratic friends in the region are currently either leveraging their noxious relations with the Taliban or providing their military facilities to help the U.S. extricate itself from the Afghanistan imbroglio. The Biden administration came to power swinging against the depredations of its allies in Turkey and the Arab Gulf states, criticizing human rights abuses and suspending arms shipment. Days before the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, both the secretaries of defense and state visited a number of Arab Gulf states on a “thank you” tour. The next time (and it is inevitable) these rulers engage in human rights abuses, the Biden administration may, in the best case, raise concern but certainly not raise hell.
The cascading events and agonies triggered on that sunny day in September 20 years ago are not over yet. There will be no deliverance to millions of Americans, Arabs and Muslims from the daemons and the tempting Sirens unleashed by the first blood that was shed on 9/11. In the interregnum some will seek solace in prayers, but all of us should reflect in silence, recognize our human limitations and foibles and relentlessly keep asking ourselves, what have we wrought?