On the 20th anniversary of the sudden shift in world history we call 9/11, the brazen and brilliant attack on America, I'm at a family gathering in the Great Smokey Mountains. I feel the cool morning warmed by the sun and hear the sound of Le Conte creek coming up through the trees outside our room. This morning, life is normal as our family catches up with each other's lives while the TV, sound muted, shows the memorial in New York City, the president and vice president looking somber, Bruce Springsteen singing. No one here is watching. We don't pause our conversation for the moment of silence observed by the crowd in New York.
That morning, 20 years ago, I was working in my office in Lowell, expecting a colleague from Roanoke to fly up for a meeting and dinner. I don't recall whether he called or emailed saying he wasn't coming, referring to a plane crash. Ed was somewhat cautious and didn't enjoy flying, so I initially thought this was a convenient excuse to cancel the trip. I walked upstairs to the cafeteria and stopped in the auditorium, where a large group had gathered around a TV, watching the smoke billowing from the twin towers of the World Trade Center. It was immediately obvious, underscored by the horror of seeing the towers fall. This was no accident. The twin towers, the attack on the Pentagon, then the downed airliner in Pennsylvania, mercifully crashed while heading back to a target in Washington.
9/11 dramatically shifted the agenda of the U.S. government, and those decisions will shape the country for generations. First, the invasion of Afghanistan to quell Al-Qaeda, then on to Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein, incorrectly accused of being a collaborator and a terrorist threat.
U.S. armed forces have been mired in both countries for 20 years — just extracting ourselves ingloriously from Afghanistan, enabling the Taliban to recapture the country without a fight. We tried to leave Iraq during President Obama's term, creating a vacuum that enabled the ISIS caliphate in Iraq and Syria, which required a renewed military campaign to defeat it. Defeat is too strong an assessment; weaken and disperse are more accurate and hopefully sufficient to prevent ISIS from again threatening innocent people with their fundamentalist and brutal orthodoxy.
While I find leaving Afghanistan to the Taliban deeply troubling, especially the uncertain fate of the country's women, I support President Biden's decision, although not the way it was implemented. Staying there would be a forever war if we retained a military presence to keep the Taliban from taking over while acquiescing to the massive corruption.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — the lives lost, the financial cost, the distraction from other global priorities — was a policy blunder equal to the one in Vietnam in the 1960s, a blunder born of anger and hubris. War is a blunt act of vengeance, often harming the innocent more than the enemy. Establishing a just, representative government in a country is a goal that has consistently evaded U.S. policy.
Perhaps the clearest act of justice in response to 9/11: Osama bin Laden is dead, killed by U.S. special forces at his hideaway in Pakistan after an unrelenting 10-year search.
Reflecting on the course of these 20 years, I wish those who lost family and friends will be comforted and inspired by memories of the good times and how they lived. For those who served valiantly in Afghanistan and Iraq, seeking justice and helping plant the seeds of democracy, I hope they can find satisfaction from their efforts, despite the inability to see those seeds fully bloom. And I pray our leaders will find humility as they steer the ship of state in this uncertain world
Initially published on September 11, 2021 on my HEY World blog.