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Closure for 9/11 was stolen from Americans
9/11 was a real national trauma. The War on Terror prevented Americans from feeling like justice could ever be served.
A few months ago, the Oriental Institute of Prague asked me to write an article for their 9/11 Legacies project. Published this week, the article touches on a theme that many of my Substack readers will be familiar with: the United States didn’t really “lose” or “fail” the War on Terror.
U.S. security planners accomplished everything they set out to do, reshaping the Middle East around U.S. power and U.S. clients. Because the results have been terrible for Middle Easterners (outside the Gulf states or Israel) and have not really benefited average Americans, the U.S. elite has to pretend to be embarrassed, while also doubling down on the same policies. You can read the whole argument at the 9/11 Legacies website.
I want to reflect a little more on the legacy of 9/11 for American society here. I didn’t really expect to write a blog post like this, thinking that enough has been said over the past 22 years. But being back in the New York area, I’ve been reminded what a trauma 9/11 was for us locally. And although time has passed, the wound hasn’t really healed properly.
Most criticisms of the War on Terror focus, and rightfully so, on its Middle Eastern victims or its harms to American society. An overlooked aspect is how bad the war was at delivering justice for the incident that caused it. The 9/11 attacks were, by themselves, an atrocity against civilians that had to be avenged. The War on Terror did everything but that.
The Bush administration could have clearly emphasized Al-Qaeda’s role in the attacks, and began a quest for justice that ended with the criminal conviction or death of Qaeda leaders. Instead, Washington used 9/11 as an opportunity to wrap up unrelated loose ends, sending Americans to fight in conflicts that could never provide closure.
One piece of War on Terror actively blocked Americans from receiving closure. The creation of secret CIA prisons and a less-secret military prison at Guantánamo has kept important Qaeda members out of the normal American justice system.
There’s a tendency today to dismiss post-9/11 paranoia as crazy or cynical, but it was a natural response to a real trauma. Three thousand random people were killed, without any warning, by mysterious infiltrators. The attacks seemed cooked up by supervillains, and hit some of the most televised places in the country, leaving Americans to watch the scenes of violence over and over again, without any way of knowing who was next.
“I think to most normal people, 9/11 was a snuff film broadcast live and rerun on TV for months and months on end,” said Blowback podcast host Brendan James in 2020. “But to some other people, it represented a lot of opportunities.”
Instead of comforting the nation and presenting a realistic plan to deal with the threat, the Bush administration intentionally confused Americans while playing up the menace. The public was told that Al-Qaeda was backed by a vast and ever-shifting conspiracy of enemies. The administration drew connections that were confusing — because they made no sense — and left Americans feeling more confused and unsettled.
It’s clear now, and should have been clear then, that the Bush administration was trying to harness Americans’ anger to carry out campaigns Washington had always wanted to do. Iraq and Iran were Cold War frenemies that had become inconvenient loose ends. The administration even tried to loop Communist holdouts North Korea and Cuba into its conspiracy theories, a claim that was perhaps too absurd even for the shell-shocked American public.
If justice really did require going after Al-Qaeda’s state sponsors, it would have uncomfortable results for the American empire. Pakistan, whose intelligence services had apparently cultivated ties to Al-Qaeda, was protected by nuclear weapons and too geographically important to alienate. Saudi Arabia, whose intelligence services had interactions with the 9/11 hijackers that remain unexplained, was too bought into the American ruling class to punish.
While the U.S. government has continued to hide documents related to the Saudi connection, U.S. courts have ruled Iran culpable for 9/11 based on vague connections to Al-Qaeda. (The court ruling set up an agonizing, and entirely unnecessary, fight between 9/11 victim families and victims of actual Iranian government crimes over the pool of seized Iranian assets in America.) Afghanistan’s national bank reserves have also been held up due to 9/11 lawsuits. The poor of Iran and Afghanistan must pay so that oil-rich Saudi Arabia does not have to.
My family, dyed-in-the-wool liberal skeptics, always made it clear to me that Iraq and Iran had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks. This wasn’t some abstract question; we could see the plumes of smoke from our house. The experience of hearing that the government was lying at such a young age, about such a traumatic event, was pretty formative experience.
(Fortunately, I am not one of the Americans who decided to “study the Middle East” after 9/11. My reasons for getting into the field are much more boring. It was the Arab Spring, combined with some personal connections I had in the region, and a healthy dose of teenage arrogance, that convinced me to try my hand as a foreign correspondent.)
Most Americans had the same realization later on: Iraq had nothing to do with the burning towers in New York, and Al-Qaeda could have been defeated without a world war. But by then, the constant background fear had already poisoned American society, a process Spencer Ackerman documented in his book Reign of Terror. The trauma of 9/11 had melted into the general frustration of the War on Terror, which could never be resolved.
Even the destruction of Al-Qaeda and the killing of Osama bin Laden himself could no longer provide closure. While President Barack Obama said that “justice has been done” by bin Laden’s death, he explicitly declared that the war was not over: “The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al Qaeda. Yet his death does not mark the end of our effort.”
After all, bin Laden’s acolytes had gathered strength in Iraq, thanks to the violence unleashed by the U.S. invasion. And the United States had built up a national security state that was too big to fail.
While the greatest victims were Middle Easterners and Muslims around the world, making the War on Terror permanent also kept Americans in a state of torment. Americans could not be allowed to feel satisfied with their triumph, and to properly grieve and heal from 9/11 trauma. Instead, the country had to be kept in a constant state of fear and anger to justify the new normal, whether constant frontier wars or surveillance at home.
Nor would there ever be a real trial for 9/11. Many of the perpetrators had been captured in the early years after the attack. But they were whisked away to CIA black sites, and kept out of reach from American law enforcement. The Bush administration subjected Qaeda suspects to forms of torture that made it very hard to try them in normal American courts, with normal rules of evidence and cross-examination.
By moving the suspects to a special prison in Guantánamo, and declaring them “enemy combatants” too dangerous to treat normally, the Bush administration also made it politically impossible to try Al-Qaeda in a civilian court. Obama, to his credit, tried to hold a trial for 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York. Republicans and Democrats shouted down the idea as a security risk, and Obama reversed course.
Having a jury of New Yorkers pass judgement on the worst mass murderer in city history would have been justice. Dragging the fearsome leaders of Al-Qaeda into a courthouse, shackled and defeated, would have been reassurance. The specter of terrorism could be dispelled, and the flesh-and-blood men behind it could be punished.
That will not happen. The specter will continue and the fate of the men behind it will be forgotten as they rot in shadow prisons. Closure had to be delayed as long as possible to give the Washington a free hand in the Muslim world. It may now be impossible.
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Photo: Standing atop rubble with retired New York City firefighter Bob Beck, then-President George W. Bush rallies firefighters and rescue workers during an impromptu speech at the site of the collapsed World Trade Center in New York City. 14 September 2001. George W. Bush Presidential Library/Eric Draper.