We Lost Sight of Why We Went to War

There are images that mark us for life, no matter how hard we try to clean them away.  I have never been able to let go of the sight of two hundred or so Americans falling to their deaths from the top floors of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in order to escape the fire and thousand-degree heat consuming those who remained.  Of all the carnage unleashed by Islamic terrorists against the United States on September 11, 2001, their murders most haunt me.  Strangers became family as they fell through the sky holding hands.  Solitary jumpers gripped cell phones close to their ears so loved ones on the other end would be with them until the end.  Some clung to curtains turned into makeshift parachutes, desperately hoping for a miracle.  Their final moments were horrendous yet human.

Those images filled me with such uncontrollable anguish and wild rage that I lost any sense of being moored to the ground.  It is the only day in my life I have been seized by fury while tasting tears.  I watched Americans forced to make such an inconceivable choice as to how they would spend the last ten seconds of their lives, and I whispered to myself, "We're at war." 

Now we're bumbling our way out of Afghanistan, the war is over after twenty years, and too many Americans don't even remember why it was fought.

Unfortunately, twenty years ago is ancient history to young Americans who did not experience those moments or feel the aftermath of 9/11.  They cannot appreciate how united in purpose Americans of all backgrounds became that morning.  They will never know what it was like to walk down the street and bond with every stranger streaming frantically past.  They cannot understand how empathetic Americans became with one another.  Personal disagreements were put on hold or dispensed entirely.  People looked up in the skies, worried that more planes were heading their way, and nervously asked each other what they knew.  Phone networks were so jammed with friends and family reaching out for each other that only the sound of busy signals could be heard.  People everywhere clenched their cell phones, redialing every number they had, seeking confirmation of life on the other end of each redial.  It was as if the business of life had disappeared behind a sudden appreciation for what it means to live.

Men looked at each other with the looks that men exchange when they know it's time to fight.  Each interaction involved a silent acknowledgment that blood had been drawn and that more was coming soon.  There was a shared seriousness among those who were already preparing for what would happen next.  Young men spoke about impending war even before the morning had ended.  Veterans, including those who had endured a despicable homecoming after returning from Vietnam thirty years earlier, flooded military call centers offering to re-enlist.  Take a moment to consider that selflessness and love of country!  Men who had survived a war against communism in Southeast Asia only to return home to be treated by their countrymen as villains were some of the first volunteers after 9/11 to beg the military to let them back into the fight.  Let it never be forgotten that when America suffered the worst attack on its soil since Pearl Harbor, men with honor responded from every generation.

Nobody doubted who attacked us.  Almost immediately, ordinary people were talking about Osama bin Laden and his war against the West.  There were no hawks or doves in the aftermath of 9/11; America had been bloodied, and Americans would fight to make sure it never happened again.  The New York Yankees would keep playing baseball only miles from Ground Zero.  The stock market would reopen for business.  Movie theaters and concert halls would keep entertaining.  Restaurants would bring friends together.  Travelers would get back on planes with newly found courage.  Families would hug each other more tightly.  We all knew that living life freely and without fear was one of the first ways to honor the three thousand Americans who had been murdered by our enemies.  We instinctively understood that continuing to live as we had before 9/11 was the surest proof of our resolve against those who wish to destroy Western civilization for good.  And I knew, every time I closed my eyes and thought of those Americans falling from the sky, that too many Americans had suffered greatly to take our freedoms for granted.

What I didn't know then was that much of the war to come would lose sight of its beginnings.  A war to protect Western civilization against Islamist aggressors who seek our deaths would be watered down into an anodyne war against "terror" in its most generic form.  The hunt for Osama bin Laden and the destruction of al-Qaeda would transform into a generational battle against the Taliban and a mission to transform Afghanistan's warring medieval tribes into something akin to a modern high-functioning democracy.  The war in Afghanistan would require a pre-emptive invasion of Iraq fifteen hundred miles away to take down an evil dictator who nonetheless had little to do with America's original mission.  And anywhere Americans put boots on the ground would simultaneously commit Americans to rebuild nations from the ground up.

Even worse, I didn't know then that we would end up so destructively declaring war on ourselves in the misplaced belief that we can protect freedom by diminishing and dismantling it.  The same Transportation Security Administration designed to prevent another 9/11 attack from the skies would transform security at the airport into a humiliating exercise for even the oldest great-grandmother confined to a wheelchair.  An entire Department of Homeland Security somehow incapable of securing the southern border would eventually be repurposed to target Republicans as potential terrorists.  A PATRIOT Act justified to stave off foreign threats would be turned against American citizens by unconstitutionally surveilling all of their phone calls, emails, and other electronic communications.  The same soldiers who have fought for America overseas would become the Pentagon's next target as the Department of Defense declares war on "white rage."  The Intelligence Community would end up conspiring with Silicon Valley and multinational corporations to censor Americans' speech and control their behavior. 

I certainly would not have predicted twenty years ago when America was awash in bravery and courage that Americans would allow themselves to be frightened and cowed by the prospect of illness to relinquish even more of their remaining freedoms in the name of health, nor would I have believed society could be shut down so easily today when Americans refused to do so after 9/11.

Twenty years later, and it is clear that we lost much more than those Americans killed on 9/11 and in combat fighting two long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and in numerous other conflict zones around the world.  We have lost a sense of who we are and why we rose as a country to defend America two decades ago.  In fighting those who would end Western civilization, we have worked awfully hard to end it on our own here at home.  And I wonder, when the American government spends so much of its time and energy treating its citizens as threats today, who will rise to defend the nation the next time it is under attack?  If the political class in D.C. can't answer that question, then it has forgotten what it feels like to watch innocent Americans fall to their deaths.

Image: Nancyswikiaccount via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0 (cropped).

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