Now that we're nearing the third anniversary of 9/11, we've certainly had enough time to think more clearly about some of the assumptions we've made about what that tragic event actually signified and justified.
Most of all, we're overdue for a re-examination of the following statement:
"And the truth is, this will be a war like no other our nation has faced." (Donald Rumsfeld, 09/18/01)
We've heard echoes of this sentiment ever since 9/11. Most people assume that the war--whatever it is--has no precedent, either for us, or for the entire world.
Because 9/11 was sui generis, many would argue, preventing future 9/11s requires abandoning old assumptions and tools. When someone says this, they're usually talking about are (1) using violence, or its threat, much more freely and intensely than we have in the past, (2) removing legal, Constitutional, and traditional restraints on when and how we use force, and (3) removing these same comstraints when dealing with prisoners accused of being terrorists.
In a way, the consequences of this philosophy circle back on its justifications. If we invade other countries without our traditional allies, aggressively pursue and assassinate terrorist leaders, and detain people without counsel (or even contact with the outside world), we have indeed created a new reality.
But was 9/11 the trigger for "a war like no other?"
Since this notion sloshes around in an inchoate stew of unstated assumptions, it's hard to say. What made 9/11 unique, and for whom, isn't a rhetorical question. The United States since the end of the Cold War already had almost no clear concept of its own national security. It's more than a bit reckless, therefore, to think that a single event, however dramatic or horrifying, made the hard outlines of our new national interests absolutely clear. Our rage, shock, and need to respond certainly were clear--but that's it. These same passions may also blind us to reality: in our towering and justifiable rage over 9/11, we may be less able to see our real interests.
What then might the statement, a war like no other, mean?
The world has never seen a terrorist attack like what happened on 9/11.
This isn't true. Bombs have gone off in London tube stations and Paris shopping malls--attacks designed to kill innocent civilians, not military targets. Red Brigade terrorists kidnapped and killed a former Italian prime minister, Aldo Moro, in 1978. At the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Palestinian terrorists took the Israeli Olympic team hostage and slaughtered them. No one had successfully used airliners as flying bombs before, but certainly, terrorists recently tried at least once to crash an airliner into Paris. And terrorists tried to blow up one of the World Trade Center towers in 1993, with the expectation that it would topple into the other tower, destroying them both.
The United States is no longer safe from terrorist attack.
Aside from the 1993 World Trade Center attack, the United States has already suffered several incidents of terrorism, both inside and outside US borders. The FBI thwarted the "Millennium plot" in 2000. During the 1960s and 1970s, American citizens were hostages in several airline hijackings. The worst incident prior to 9/11, of course, was the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, in which 168 people died, including a large number of children in a day care facility. Since 1995, other domestic terrorists have continued to plot attacks. Some were successful (abortion clinic bombings, the Atlanta Olympics bombing, etc.), others not. Whatever the fate of Timothy McVeigh or Mohammed Atef, domestic and foreign terrorists have attacked the United States before 9/11, and continue to plan attacks since 9/11.
US citizens are now vulnerable to attack by enemies from within.
Aside from domestic terrorists, the United States has weathered many sources of violence from within its own borders, or on its frontier. Clashes with Native Americans, from the first Powhatan War to the ghost dancers, have been a sadly consistent feature of American history. After the British surrender at Yorktown, American colonists still feared Tory sympathizers whom they suspected of providing information about US troops and warships to a vengeful Britain. The Shays Rebellion was one of many incidents that made Americans fearful that the new republic would be torn apart in riot and revolt. Gang violence--the Molly Maguires' bare-knuckled intimidation of coal minors, Prohibition-era mob wars, clashes among rival Vietnamese or Cuban gangs--has also been a recurring theme in American history. And, of course, the United States fought a bloody civil war over slavery, but emerged as an intact nation.
US citizens are now vulnerable to attack from enemies from without.
That's not exactly true either. The "atom spies" cases of the 1950s were scandalous both because Americans were passing secrets to the Soviets, but also the Soviets were using these secrets to sharpen the nuclear sword against us. Foreign enemies have attacked US territory, and even burned the White House during the War of 1812. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, US marines landed in China, Nicaragua, Haiti, and elsewhere to protect American citizens during uprisings like the Boxer Rebellion. American civilians, therefore, faced a far larger threat to life and limb during the Cold War, and frequently came under fire during "little wars" in Asia and Latin America.
Al Qaeda represents a new kind of enemy.
Terrorism is hardly new. Al Qaeda might be more ruthless, clever, and organized than previous anti-American terrorist groups, but they're hardly the first. And other countries with whom we have close working relationships in counterterrorism, such as the United Kingdom, France, Russia, Egypt, Colombia, and Israel, have experience with terrorist groups as ruthless as al Qaeda, if not moreso.
Americans didn't see terrorism as a threat.
Whether or not Americans missed the warning signs, they were there. This statement--we didn't understand the terrorist threat before 9/11--condemns our own ignorance. It doesn't identify anything truly new that's a threat to us. It's the fault of the American public or American politicians that terrorism--from foreign groups like al Qaeda, or from homegrown terrorists like Timothy McVeigh--consistently appeared lower on our list of imminent dangers than perhaps it should have.
And, in spite of the feeling that we've risen to the challenge that terrorism poses, we still might not understand the threat. We may be overrating the significance of 9/11, or of al Qaeda relative to other dangers we face. Or we may misunderstand the terrorist threat altogether--correctly identifying the danger, but mistaking its sources and the best ways to fight it. 9/11 may have frightened the hell out of us, but it didn't necessarily make us smarter.
I've started the discussion of "the spectrum of conflict" with this question--was 9/11 the Year Zero for the United States--because it's both an important question to address on its own, and it launches us directly into some of the critical issues about military strategy. We'll get to that second point soon enough, but for the moment, let's stick to the Year Zero idea.
As I said earlier, for many people, the break from the past that occurred on September 11, 2001, took the following form:
Because we are now fighting "a war like no other," we have to abandon old ways of fighting wars, old ways of thinking about the threats we face, even hallowed legal and Constitutional principles, in the face of the hard reality of this "war like no other."
You can question whether the second part of that thesis--counterterrorism requires not just a different American way of warfare, but almost a different America--on at least two grounds. The effectiveness of these "new ways" is highly questionable, whether or not they're justified by some new reality.
However, the "new reality" is sheer poppycock. 9/11 wasn't anything new, and it didn't signify the worst threat that we've ever faced. We've faced threats before that resembled some of the shocking aspects of al Qaeda's attack. We faced down a nuclear-powered enemy who could kill not thousands, but millions of Americans, and we patiently waited until the Soviet Union self-destructed and we exited the Cold War with our cities, military, alliances, and Constitution intact. During the early years of the republic, we feared British sympathizers and insurrectionists from within, and both Native Americans and British troops from without. Americans weren't sure the fragile republic would survive its first few decades, and the Civil War almost did wreck the nation. Terrorists are nothing new, and many of our best friends, new (Russia) and old (Britain), can (and do) tell us a lot about their own experiences fighting terrorists.
The sentiment that 9/11 signalled "a war like no other" is understandable. We were in shock, mourning both our dead and the safety we used to feel. That safety was, to some extent, illusory. But at the same time, we weren't at the mercy of dark forces, defying our understanding, capable at any moment of inflicting more pain and suffering at unthinkable levels. We made a mistake, both in downplaying the threat before 9/11, and exaggerating it since then. It's time, now, to start thinking and behaving like adults.