It's six years after the terror attacks that shocked the world, and I'm sure pretty much everybody and their little brother will be publishing a column on their blogs giving us their personal reflections or weighing in on the significance of the event or the lessons we should have learned or other such comments. This blog is no different.
We hear the phrase constantly: "September 11th changed everything." It's part of an answer to pretty much every foreign policy question of the past six years. It's a mantra frequently recited by those in the administration and the punditocracy who want change in the way we pursue terrorists/seek security. Hell, it's practically the entirety of Rudy Giuliani's presidential campaign.
And it's utter bullshit. I confront you with this bit of national heresy: The events of September 11th, 2001 changed nothing, at least not in the global sense.
Consider: Terrorism was nothing new when the Twin Towers and the Pentagon were struck. We had suffered terror attacks on our soil before, most notably in 1993 (the WTC bombing) and 1995 (Oklahoma City). Al-Qaeda had begun attacking us well before 9/11 - remember the embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya or the Cole bombing? Radical Islamist terrorism didn't suddenly spring into existence for 9/11, and it was no less of a threat to Americans on September 10, 2001 than it was on September 12, 2001. Terrorism, and the need to fight it, did not suddenly grow on 9/11. We're no more "at war" with Islamic extremists now than we were pre-9/11.
What's more: you're not any more - or less - likely to die in a terrorist attack now than you were then. And if a terrorist does take your life, it will probably be a deranged homegrown loony like John Allen Muhammad or Cho Seung Hui rather than a radical Islamic terrorist bent on the destruction of the Western world.
Radical Islamic terrorism is a threat, and it needs to be taken seriously, but we've gone from understating the threat (remember the 1998 bombing of al-Qaeda targets in Sudan and Afghanistan, when Republicans and many Democrats thought the attacks were just a ploy to distract Americans from Monicagate?) to drastically overstating it. Somewhere deep down inside, you know this: radical Islamic terrorism is not an existential threat to the United States. It never has been, it never will be.
What September 11th did change is this: the fear factor. Let's face it - 9/11 scared us shitless. As someone who grew up 15 miles from the Pentagon and 2 miles from Dulles Airport, I know I was. But instead of having leaders who would calm us down, who would help us look at the situation for what it was and would direct a rational debate on what needed to be done to prevent future attacks, we had demagogues and fearmongers. We should have been talking seriously about improving intelligence-gathering, beefing up port security, and facilitating information sharing between investigative agencies. We may have done this, but instead we heard about the "war on terror" and all the empty rhetoric and hasty legislation that went along with it. We should have been talking about integrating our intelligence gathering with that of our allies so that we can track terror suspects across borders. Instead we got Guantanamo, military tribunals, and unnecessary FISA breaches. We should have been talking about using all our military ability to track the leaders of al-Qaeda and bring them to justice. Instead we got Iraq.
All the mistakes of Bush administration foreign policy, all the overreaches of the administration's anti-terror policy, have been fed to us with the reminder that we're "at war." And that "September 11th changed everything."
I wish our leaders would stop using the specter of 9/11 and the fear factor to sell us whatever they want to sell us. But you and I know that's just not going to happen. I therefore encourage you to stop and think when someone talks about an "imminent threat," or when someone claims that this policy or that policy is a necessary part of the "war on terror," or justifies something by saying "September 11th changed everything." It's not smart to dismiss threats out of hand (ask all those who did so when we first learned about al-Qaeda in the late '90s), but we should also realize that when someone starts talking about the next big threat, there's a decent chance that they're feeding you bullshit.
A final note: we're not "at war" with terrorists. Terrorists may be criminals with a sweeping, dangerous ideology and complex organizational skills, but they're still common criminals. I can think of no reason why Osama bin Laden is any more worthy of some special legal status than Timothy McVeigh. He and any other terrorist ought to be tried like any murderer.