Adjusting to 9/11

Today marks year seven in a “war on terror” not of our making, and possibly not in our power to end. In scale and deadliness, the attacks of 9/11 were comparable to Pearl Harbor, so it’s little wonder that they were interpreted as an act of war. But by taking on a movement rather than a government, the United States has confronted unprecedented legal and procedural challenges that continue to haunt it -- and will do so long after a new president takes power, particularly if the current occupant of the Oval Office has his way.

In recent months, the Bush administration has been reaffirming its wartime powers by inserting language in legislation, rewriting intelligence procedures and changing regulations. For example, the New York Times reports that the administration added a provision to a proposal for hearing legal appeals from detainees at Guantanamo Bay that asks Congress to “acknowledge again and explicitly” that the U.S. is at war with Al Qaeda, the Taliban and related movements.

Bush doesn’t need such declarations in order to continue the war in Afghanistan; that was authorized by Congress on Sept. 14, 2001. Rather, he seems to be trying to solidify the legal justification for some of his administration’s most questionable policies, such as holding detainees indefinitely at Guantanamo Bay or carrying out wiretapping operations on Americans without a court order. The goal, apparently, is to make such policies permanent, or at least give his successor the option of continuing them.

The effort brings up a question that’s been plaguing us since 9/11: Should we consider our conflict with terrorists a war or a police action? Certainly it doesn’t fit the usual definition of a war. Victory in Afghanistan won’t come when every Taliban adherent is dead or captured, nor is there likely to be an armistice agreement -- it will come when the Afghan government is strong enough to take on the terrorists by itself. Preventing another attack on the homeland isn’t a war, it’s a security challenge. It’s not so much a question of “winning” this conflict, which will be with us until the Islamic extremism movement fades away, as it is deciding when it ceases to be a so-called war on terror and becomes a fight against terrorism.


The consequences of our war footing are not only restrictions on our freedom and privacy that would never be tolerated under ordinary circumstances, but the expenditure of billions of dollars on measures that may not be justified. As just one example, is the degree of danger posed by the theoretical possibility that terrorists might put a “dirty bomb” in a shipping container really great enough to justify the amount we’re spending to prevent it from happening?

Bush argues that the measures he has put in place are the reason the United States hasn’t suffered a major terrorist attack on its soil since 9/11. Maybe that’s true. Or maybe the threat just wasn’t as great as the administration has made it out to be. We don’t have the answer to that question, but perhaps, seven years after the attacks, emotions have cooled to the point where we can at least debate it more seriously.