Fair Accounting: A Perspective on the Legacy of the 9/11 Terror Attacks

Fred George, Ash Wednesday, Dusk, 9/12/01, New-York Historical Society

Fred George, Ash Wednesday, Dusk, 9/12/01, New-York Historical Society

Fourteen years ago today, terrorists flew planes into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In Pennsylvania, the passengers and crew of an additional flight lost their lives in a brave attempt to regain control of their hijacked aircraft. By the end of the day, nearly three thousand Americans were dead as a result of a senseless act of carnage.

Every year, the citizens of the United States remember the horror of that event, the inarguable tragedy of the lives lost, and the heroism of brave men and women who gave everything to help others. To the extent that some people are still grappling with a sense of loss, this is fine. But to the extent that it has come to be one of the defining features of the modern American mythos – a nation shaped by violence, grief, and fear – it is not.

On 9/11, we tend to bow or heads and remember the toll – measured in blood, sorrow, and (to a lesser extent) riches – exacted on American soil. Few seem willing or able to recall how our leaders squandered the unity inspired by those events and embarked on a catastrophic campaign of foreign intervention. Nor do many seem to spend much time thinking about the restrictions on civil liberties and the forfeiture of American ideals justified in the name of defense. 9/11 provided men like George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld the capital the needed to initiate a savage campaign of foreign war, domestic spying, and torture.

9/11 has helped to cultivate a national sense of victimhood. The events of that day have played a fundamental role in sculpting important swaths of domestic and foreign policy, and the results have been largely disastrous. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives. Indeed, the number of soldiers who have died in those wars is more than double that of the civilians and public servants killed on 9/11. As of 2015, roughly 210,000 Afghan, Iraqi, and Pakistani civilians have died as direct result of those wars. A federal bill providing medical assistance to 9/11 first responders was not passed until 2010. And, to the considerable chagrin of men like the ever mendacious Dick Cheney and bumbling George W. Bush, the fact that large areas of the Middle East are a quagmire of violence and despair today is at least partially attributable to decisions made in the direct aftermath of 9/11.

None of which is really to criticize anyone who wants to pass the day mired in patriotic paraphernalia and sentimentality or posting inspirational, heart-warming videos to their favorite social media outlet. 9/11 was a monumental tragedy perpetrated by vicious criminals. There’s no reason we shouldn’t remember it as such. But we should be careful not to let the horror and anguish of an event 14 years ago become the bread and butter of our national identity. September 11, 2001 was a horrible day in American history. Unfortunately, the entirely justifiable sense of loss and righteous indignation inspired by those events has largely been used as leverage to squeeze civil liberties at home and pursue perverse policy agendas to dubious ends overseas.

Properly boiled down, the question amounts to this: how appropriate is it to annually solemnize one crime when callously or carelessly forgetting its equally atrocious offspring? Certainly 9/11 was awful, but viewed objectively, what the United States did after was worse. The death toll, both civilian and military, has been much higher. Likewise, the costs in treasure have been staggering – the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq accounted for 20 percent of the amount added to the U.S. national debt between 2001 and 2012, ultimately costing around $6 trillion dollars. And what did we buy with all that blood and treasure? The fruits have been nebulous at best.

Which brings us squarely down to my real beef with 9/11 memorializing. The only thing we seem to have gotten out of 9/11 and all the blood spilled thereafter is a right to spend a day each year feeling sorry about something that happened 14 years ago. For me, the ticket isn’t worth the price.

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