The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 were this generation's Pearl Harbor, a deadly surprise that changed the course of the nation's history, all the more devastating because the murderous assault was directed at innocent civilians. It is appropriate to take a moment this morning to remember those who died as they went about their daily lives, and honor the heroic firefighters and police who responded, especially those who perished trying to save others.
War: As with Pearl Harbor, 9/11 was the opening of a long and costly war. More than 6,000 Americans have died on two different battlefronts, most of them in a war fought on false pretenses in a country that had nothing to do with the attacks. It took nearly 10 years, but the mastermind of 9/11 is dead. The U.S. military has finally learned how to take out terrorists through good intelligence, special forces raids and unmanned drone strikes, instead of parading mechanized forces through hostile areas where they could be blown up by roadside bombs.
Since 9/11, Americans have stayed relatively safe on U.S. soil. With increased security measures and good cooperation from Muslim Americans, many plots were foiled, and others fizzled. The Fort Hood massacre, by a converted Muslim extremist serving in the military, is the one notable security failure. Islamic terrorists committed their more spectacular murders elsewhere, in places like London, Madrid and Bali.
Liberty vs. security: As in other wars, a nervous nation willingly traded liberty for security. U.S. Muslims were not sent to camps, as happened to the Japanese in World War II. The backlash against Muslims here was mild by historical standards, thanks to strong political and civic leadership. But the Patriot Act authorized unprecedented domestic surveillance on dangerously thin grounds, with no meaningful court oversight. Public buildings have become fortresses, and airline travelers must submit to evermore invasive searches.
The president asserted the right to hold certain suspects, even U.S. citizens, indefinitely without trial. U.S. forces rounded up hundreds of suspects, sometimes on bogus information provided by enemies or bounty hunters, and held them for years without full due process at the Guantánamo Bay detention camp, which remains open today.
Other suspects were kidnapped from sovereign countries and sent to sympathetic governments with no qualms about inflicting torture. The Abu Ghraib scandal revealed U.S. forces systematically abused prisoners in Iraq, in keeping with superiors' demands to get intelligence by "enhanced interrogation," yet no high-ranking official ever faced charges in the scandal.
Fleeting unity: For a short while after the attacks, Americans shared a rare sense of national unity and international sympathy. Yet when the nation went to war, there was no sense of shared sacrifice. President Bush put the wars on the national credit card and told the nation to go shopping. The all-volunteer military fought for us all, enduring repeated deployments, inadequate equipment, ineffective strategy and shamefully poor follow-up care for wounded warriors coming back home.
The cost: With the unprovoked war against Iraq, international sympathy waned, and revelations of torture cost the country its moral authority in world affairs. At home, the expenses of two wars - estimated at $3 to $5 trillion - sapped the country's economic strength and drained money from more useful long-term investments in education and infrastructure.
Now, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are winding down. Continuing a small presence in Afghanistan will provide a needed base of operations to hunt down terrorists in the tribal areas of Pakistan. Iraq has been freed from a brutal dictator, only to fall within Iran's pernicious sphere of influence.
A nation changed: In the 9/11 attacks, a tiny band of clever enemies used America's strength against us. Our open society, one that prospered by welcoming the contributions of those from other lands, has become less free and more hostile to immigrants.
We are safer against a future spectacular attack, but unlike ten years after Pearl Harbor, we have a broken economy at home and we have lost respect and influence abroad.