Osama bin Laden’s body decomposed long ago somewhere in the Indian Ocean. His death in 2011 provided some finality to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Yet on this, the 16th anniversary of the attacks, Bin Laden is still very much alive within us, and still victorious.
The events of 9/11 are seared into the memory of Americans like none other. Although the attack on Pearl Harbor was of course a nasty shock, the warships anchored there were legitimate military targets and newsreel footage of the Arizona exploding was not witnessed in real -time. On 9/11, fear gripped Americans in a visceral way that we had never quite experienced. We felt vulnerable, confused, victimized.
These emotions and their aftershocks remain an essential part of the American identity. What’s more, they are a prime mover of U.S. foreign policy, animating our interminable wars in Central Asia and the Middle East. We can never feel safe enough, but if we lash out we can pretend we’re warding off disaster.
As President Trump acknowledged in his recent speech about the war in Afghanistan, many of those who fought and died in Afghanistan “enlisted in the months after Sept. 11, 2001.” He said that “they loved America, and they were determined to protect her.”
That’s undoubtedly the case, but they were also led into a trap.
Bin Laden’s objective on 9/11 was not simply to destroy the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Rather, these were the means to an end. Terrorists kill to induce people to alter their behavior, to force them into bad decisions or tempt a government to crack down on their populations.
In our case, we’ve bled ourselves dry on military adventures around the world.
Afghanistan is now the longest war in the history of the United States. A few countries over, U.S. forces are once more on the ground in Iraq. Our troops are deployed on every corner of the globe while their combat readiness declines. Aircraft crashes are up. We’ve seen unprecedented ship collisions and a significant rise in suicides among members of the military. Our veteran care system is ungainly and dysfunctional. Our international influence is waning.
These problems are a direct consequence of our military misadventures brought about by fear. The damage we have wrought upon ourselves far exceeds what Al Qaeda could ever have achieved on its own accord.
Some believe that U.S. intervention in Afghanistan to fight Al Qaeda was necessary and that these actions have made us safer. Trump explicitly used this argument when he said that "thanks to the vigilance and skill of the American military and of our many allies throughout the world, horrors on the scale of Sept. 11th… have not been repeated on our shores.”
Better U.S. security, however, is not a product of the U.S military actions. It is a consequence of better policing, screening and surveillance, as well as heightened vigilance.
Conversely, American military actions in the Middle East and Central Asia have reduced our security by extending the narrative of an East-West divide. We lend ammunition to the propaganda and recruiting efforts of Islamic extremists.
This is not to say that the U.S. should immediately abandon Afghanistan or Iraq, or that we should abrogate our responsibilities to our allies in the region. Rather, as we look to the future, we must carefully meter our emotions, be prepared to acknowledge our folly and back away from unending war.
Even as 9/11 slips deeper into distant memory, it continues to drive our policies. We will likely face more terror acts in the future which will re-inflame our fears. But we must keep in mind that no terrorist is, or will ever be, an existential threat to the United States. Only our response to terrorism can destroy our way of life.
David Max Korzen is a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a graduate of Harvard University's Center for Middle Eastern Studies.