A general view of the city skyline and the 'Tribute in Light' installation commemorating the 9/11 terrorist attacks, in New York on September 10, 2021. Image Credit: AFP

If you live in the United States, as I do, and were there on Sep. 11, 2021, you would’ve felt the vibes of 9/11 resounding around every corner of America’s collective being, as Americans everywhere commemorated the 20th anniversary of one of the darkest days in their history.

Yet the commemoration was as much an elegy to the 2,977 souls who perished then as it was to the wounds inflicted on the soul of America and the psyche of Americans by twenty-years of war. And what insinuated an admixture of grief, uncertainty and in places cynicism to the national mood was the realisation after two decades of sacrifice, everything on the war front was back to square one, as if nothing had been achieved and the heavy cost paid in blood and treasure had all been in vain.

Several days after 9/11, clearly with the wound inflicted on America still raw, then President George W. Bush was asked by a reporter, on the fly, how America planned to respond to the attacks. America’s commander-in-chief, gave — as had been his wont when asked to comment on the fly — a disjointed answer. “There’s a new kind of, a new kind of evil”, he said. “This crusade, this war on terrorism is going to take a while”.

Soon after that he gave a more coherent answer of what he meant when, in a well-scripted State of the Union speech that he delivered to Congress, he declared that the global war on terror would be, like the Cold War, a generational struggle, a “campaign”, he said — omitting the word “crusade” — that “may not be finished on our watch, yet it must be waged on our watch”. He then claimed, evoking imagery from the Second World War, that groups like Al Qaida “follow in the path of fascism, Nazism and totalitarianism”, later calling them “Islamic fascists”.

So America rolled its sleeves, spat on the palm of its hand and got to work, waging all- out war against terrorists wherever terrorists could be found — even were that war to become a forever-war, as it ultimately did, and even if its legacy at home were to become one of xenophobia and abuse of minority and immigrant rights.

It began as an incursion in Afghanistan aimed at destroying Al Qaida then morphed into a sprawling war against real or imagined enemies in a dozen other countries, including Iraq, whose regime the US accused improbably of being linked to Al Qaida and of harbouring what later turned to be phantom weapons of mass destruction.

All the while, America never took a moment to reckon with the limits of its power or to ask itself what it would actually mean to win that global war on terror that it was waging.

For the US administration, for US policymakers and for sundry US think-tankers and media pundits, most notably those among them known then as neoconservatives (remember them?), the war on terrorists would be won, and won by all means, even if victory were to come at the cost of having America subvert its core moral values and debase its global standing as leader of the free world.

What followed was the spectacle of CIA agents, often operating from secret “black sites” in host countries — seemingly out of sight and thus out of mind of folks back home, that is, till investigative reporter Dana Priest exposed it all on the front page of the Washington Post on Nov. 2, 2005 — where terror suspects were subjected to “enhanced interrogation” or “extraordinary rendition”, terms that have become so common in our political lexicon that a columnist need not here explain them to readers.

America, the land where the free and the brave are said to live, America, the land that wanted other nations transformed into its own “exceptional” image, had sunk so low as to actually torture prisoners.

But those were the days, my friend. Those were days when the public discourse was centred on the nation that you’re with us or you’re against us, a debate that had contracted to a Manichean construct of good v. evil, which clearly allowed no room for open debate.

The long and short of it is this: America has not lost the war on terror but it has most decidedly not won it either. Terrorists are still buzzing around everywhere, menacing the world with their twisted deeds as with their twisted vision.

Consider this. In an article in the New York Times on Saturday by veteran reporter Mark Landler, we read: “[T]he CIA is quietly expanding a secret base deep in the Sahara, from which it runs drone flights to monitor Al Qaida and [Daesh] militants in Libya, as well as extremists in Niger, Chad and Mali. The military’s Africa Command resumed drone strikes against the Shabab, a Qaeda-linked group. The Pentagon is weighing whether to send dozens of special forces back into Somalia to help local troops fight militants. And even in Kabul itself, a fiery drone strike on men believed to be [Daesh] plotters targeting the airport portended a future of military operations there”.

Sometime in the future, 9/11 will pass from memory to history, but it will continue to be seen by all of us in this global village of ours as a dark day that indeed changed the world. 

— Fawaz Turki is a journalist, academic and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile