The scenes had already played out on television as I rushed to my car to pick up my kids from school. The twin towers were vomiting smoke and flames, the White House was being evacuated, and more attacks were imminent. For our family, the World Trade Center buildings were not just iconic images of America’s largest city. We had visited often with our cousins to enjoy the exhilarating views from 110 stories up. On the way down, in the crazy fast elevators, we played the jumping game to experience the giddy sensation of weightlessness for a second.
That day, others were jumping—people plunging to their deaths rather than be incinerated. Of all the horrors of September 11, the falling bodies were the ones that crushed my heart the most.
On the way from the kids’ school, I got a call from a friend. “You might want to pull over,” she warned. One of our friends, Barbara Olsen, was a passenger on Flight 77, the one that hit the Pentagon.
There was still another plane in the air. People said it was heading for the White House or the Capitol. We scanned the skies as we rushed the kids home. There were rumors that the State Department had also been bombed. The president was somewhere on Air Force One but no one knew where.
I cried copiously that day and for several days thereafter. Tears for my fellow Americans who had been so viciously murdered. That’s how it is when you are a patriot. You identify with those who share your nationality, though all (with one exception) were strangers. Every expression of patriotism in the days that followed felt like a balm. The New York Philharmonic stood as it played the Star Spangled Banner. Democrats and Republicans gathered on the steps of the Capitol to sing God Bless America. Mayor Rudy Giuliani deployed police, fire, and emergency units with professionalism and just the right dose of fury. New Yorkers turned out in droves to line the highways and pay tribute to President Bush’s limousine as it passed on the way to the still smoldering World Trade Center rubble. Gov. George Pataki, in the car with him, quipped “None of them voted for you.”
On the 20th anniversary of that catastrophe—in the shadow of our chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan—there has been a great deal of commentary about our mistakes. We were hubristic, we’re told. Arrogant. We violated our values. We overreacted. We squandered the world’s goodwill. As the headline of one piece had it: “After 9/11, the U.S. Got Almost Everything Wrong.”
Of course we made mistakes. I freely confess that I was among those who supported the Iraq War—which turned out to be a gross blunder (though today’s Iraq is in better condition than Afghanistan).
But those who are condemning our response are forgetting some important context. The terror attacks did not begin on September 11, 2001. Islamic radicals had planted a bomb in the World Trade Center in 1993, killing six and wounding more than a thousand. Al Qaeda had exploded bombs in our embassies in Dar Es Salaam and Nairobi, killing 224 including 12 Americans and wounding more than 4,500. The USS Cole had been bombed, killing 17 and injuring many more. A truck bomber blew up the Khobar Towers complex in Saudi Arabia, killing more than 500 soldiers of various nationalities including 19 Americans. And there were dozens of smaller attacks. After 9/11, we could not plausibly deny that this was war.
As Robert Kagan has written, we were more frightened than arrogant in those first weeks and months after 9/11. All of us packed bags for ourselves, our children, and our pets so that we could flee Washington when the next attack came (as we all believed it would). We kept $1000 in cash on hand. One of my kids was hospitalized during this time at Children’s National Medical Center. Driving past the nearby city reservoir, I remember worrying that it was completely unguarded. Anyone could slip poison in. We couldn’t open our mail for weeks due to the anthrax attacks. There was speculation about biological attacks. We learned that the smallpox virus remained alive and preserved in some labs. Could it be stolen and released? There was talk of dirty bombs. Not a nuclear explosion, but a bomb laced with radiation that could nonetheless disable an entire city.
Why this panicked speculation? Because the 9/11 attacks were so depraved, so horrifyingly cruel, that it was clear we were dealing with an enemy whose thirst for destruction was unbounded.
This enemy was in some respects like our old enemy, communism. Islamism was a coherent worldview. It had global ambitions. It provided existential certitude. Like communism, it disdained pluralism and freedom of thought and expression. It ruthlessly suppressed dissent. In some ways it was therefore a familiar adversary. It felt like the latest despotic, fanatical ideology to challenge us, following fascism and communism.
It’s impossible to know how things would have turned out if we had not responded as we did. Would there have been another devastating attack? Nor is there any question that along with the errors, we did much good in both Iraq and Afghanistan—building schools, providing health care, improving the standard of living. Unlike the Soviet Union in the 1980s, we didn’t roll into Afghanistan to crush its people. No Afghans tried to hitch rides with the departing Soviets.
My own tentative conclusion is that a more modest series of anti-terror measures would have been sufficient to meet the threat. The Global War on Terror was too ambitious and too open-ended. The Iraq War called into question our judgment and our competence. The failure to find weapons of mass destruction was the most discrediting debacle in our lifetime. Our resort to torture, as John McCain eloquently argued, dishonored us. Further, we may have awakened hopes that could not be fulfilled, leading to even more suffering. Arguably, those purple-stained fingers Iraqis proudly waved after their first votes lit the fuse that ignited the Arab Spring. When the people of Syria asked for the same, they got a civil war that killed hundreds of thousands, displaced millions, and destabilized Europe.
The lesson of the 20th century was that weakness invites aggression. One lesson of the 21st, so far, may be that unintended consequences are inevitable, and it may be well to recall Ottto von Bismarck’s wry observation that “Preventive war is like committing suicide out of fear of death.”