The 9/11 Era Is Over
In the bowels of the CIA, there is a sign that reads every day is september 12th.
“As a New Yorker who witnessed the 9/11 attacks, I once felt that way myself,” Ben Rhodes wrote earlier this month, “but by the time I saw the sign, during the second term of the Obama administration, it seemed to ignore all the things that our country had gotten wrong because of that mindset. Now, as COVID-19 has transformed the way that Americans live, and threatens to claim exponentially more lives than any terrorist has, it is time to finally end the chapter of our history that began on September 11, 2001.”
Ben Rhodes is right to acknowledge what many of us anticipated soon after the tragic attacks of September 11, 2001, and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan nearly 20 years ago: that our response to the attacks has done more harm than good. He provides examples that no student of history could credibly dispute, including opening the prison at Guantánamo Bay, torturing detainees, and the invasion of Iraq. There is much blame to go around for those failures, which have led to many lives lost, exacerbating many times over the devastation of 9/11.
Mr. Rhodes comes up short, however, by not acknowledging sufficiently the Obama administration’s share of responsibility for failing to remedy, and in some instances compounding, the missteps of the prior administration. President Barack Obama undoubtedly wanted to end the “post-9/11 period” and move U.S. national security and foreign policy away from a focus on terrorism, but regrettably his actions often led elsewhere. His administration often claimed legal authority to do what his predecessor had claimed authority to do without legal constraints under the guise of fighting terrorism. This included surveilling electronic communications of U.S. citizens without warrants, expanding the use of armed drones based on dubious legal opinions about what constitutes an imminent threat, and claiming authority to hold detainees at Guantánamo Bay indefinitely and without charge by picking and choosing which armed-conflict rules to apply to them. The administration also preferred to look forward, not backward, and consequently failed to prosecute or hold anyone accountable for torturing detainees. Rather, President Obama was willing to overlook the involvement of his administration officials in those grave crimes.