U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Lessons Not Learned from 9/11

Paul Croce teaches History and American Studies at Stetson University.  An earlier version of this essay appeared in The Orlando Sentinel, September 11, 2012. 

With all the suffering and destruction of 9/11 in 2001, when the United States was brutally attacked, the results also produced a peaceable possibility.  There was a palpable spirit of solidarity around the country and around the world.  Even the French Le Monde newspaper gushed with a sympathetic headline, “We are all Americans.” 
Then-president George W. Bush liked to talk of “political capital,” and the US had it in abundance, a potential resource for tackling the roots of the hatreds that spurred such violence.  That reservoir of sympathy could have served as political capital for isolating and humiliating the terrorists, and for building a more constructive basis for resolving tensions in the Middle East.

Led by that same president, the US took another path, fighting fire with fire, seeking revenge on Osama Bin Laden and the Al-Qaeda terrorists, and declaring an endless War on Terror, directed at hiding terrorists, and then expanded to warfare in two nations, Afghanistan and Iraq. 
The preemptive war on Iraq toppled a brutal dictator, Saddam Hussein, but did little to address the problems of 9/11—and likely made them worse.  If you have a fire in your house, you do not fight that fire with fire, but with water.  That water for fighting fire was readily available right after 9/11, in the wide sympathy for the US that could have served as our political capital. 
By fighting the fire of terror with the fire of war, we helped raise the profile of terror from its reclusive hiding places, as if it were an equal player on the world stage with the American superpower and not just a band of international criminals with minority support even within the Muslim world.  By declaring War on Terror, the US declared war not on a nation or even strictly speaking on a particular ideology; we declared war on a tactic, the methods of a few Al-Qaeda true believers on suicide missions.  Declaring war on these methods was like declaring war on jet planes, tanks, or amphibious landings. 
Today, especially among young people, the War on Terror and all its sorry consequences has become not only our shared history, but also the norm, as if it constitutes all that could have happened.  But it was a choice.  And we still have the choice for isolating and humiliating terror without wholesale war, a chance to ask the citizens around those terrorists: do you want more brutality or a more constructive future?  The US can foster peace and support the majorities who crave it rather than just fight the bad guys, a posture that in the end makes us look like bad guys too.