Elections have consequences. The events of 20 years ago transformed the world in ways I can't imagine happening had the Supreme Court not thrown the 2000 election. Of course, had Al Gore won, the terrorists probably would not have attacked; they wanted the rage and violence that followed as part of their plan to drag the world back to the 12th Century.
But because the president was a draft-dodging chickenhawk, and because his vice-president was a power-hungry paranoid, the terrorists won:
The terms of the debate were set by the Islamic extremists on one side, and Western neoconservatives on the other. People like me found ourselves caught in the middle. Through my entire adolescence and young adulthood, I was forced to distinguish myself from the terrorists, to prove I was one of the “good ones.” George W. Bush had called it a “crusade” against an elusive foe who might be your neighbor. He said that you were either with us or with the terrorists, implying that anyone who did not support the United States was supporting Al Qaeda. Those were the parameters of the post-9/11 era.
Only by getting the West drawn into endless wars abroad, and into plots against enemies at home, could [Osama bin Laden] bankrupt the American behemoth. In the decade since his death, the results have been plain to see: conflict and instability across the greater Middle East; more refugee flows into the West, combined with anti-immigrant violence in response; the rise in America of terrorist attacks carried out by white extremists, goaded on by an authoritarian leader who made a name for himself demonizing Muslims. The surveillance state now has extensive access to every facet of our lives. Trust in political institutions is decaying. Democracy itself is in peril.
[S]omething much worse than terror wounded our society over the last two decades. An essential faith in the future was lost. Perhaps this is true for the end of all empires, and despair always precedes the fall. But if younger generations are to emerge from the darkness of the 9/11 era — and it remains my naïve hope that they will — we must first acknowledge the damage we wrought on ourselves. That was the deepest cut of all.
It helped them that we got everything wrong after 9/11:
The nation’s failures began in the first hours of the attacks and continue to the present day. Seeing how and when we went wrong is easy in hindsight. What’s much harder to understand is how—if at all—we can make things right.
The most telling part of September 11, 2001, was the interval between the first plane crash at the World Trade Center, at 8:46 a.m., and the second, at 9:03. In those 17 minutes, the nation’s sheer innocence was on display.
[A]fter that second crash, and then the subsequent ones at the Pentagon and in the fields outside Shanksville, Pennsylvania, our government panicked. There’s really no other way to say it. Fear spread up the chain of command.
Rather than recognizing that an extremist group with an identifiable membership and distinctive ideology had exploited fixable flaws in the American security system to carry out the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration launched the nation on a vague and ultimately catastrophic quest to rid the world of “terror” and “evil.”
[R]emoving the terror cases from traditional federal courts and sending them to military tribunals has still produced no closure for the families of 9/11 victims. So far, none of the alleged 9/11 plotters sitting in Guantánamo have faced trial. Military-commission proceedings for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, allegedly a mastermind of the attacks, and four co-defendants are still in a pretrial phase.
DHS has the wrong DNA. Unlike the Justice Department, it has no institutional culture rooted in respect for the rule of law. Unsteeped in America’s traditions of freedom and openness, the new department was built to view everything through a lens of “Can it hurt us?” This corrosive mindset became particularly visible on immigration and border-control issues, as a culture of welcoming new citizens and families shifted to one of questioning and suspicion—especially if you happened to have dark skin.
Meanwhile, for all the original talk of banishing evil from the world, the [Global War on Terror's] seemingly exclusive focus on Islamic extremism has led to the neglect of other threats actively killing Americans. In the 20 years since 9/11, thousands of Americans have succumbed to mass killers—just not the ones we went to war against in 2001. The victims have included worshippers in churches, synagogues, and temples; people at shopping malls, movie theaters, and a Walmart; students and faculty at universities and community colleges; professors at a nursing school; children in elementary, middle, and high schools; kids at an Amish school and on a Minnesota Native American reservation; nearly 60 concertgoers who were machine-gunned to death from hotel windows in Las Vegas. But none of those massacres were by the Islamic extremists we’d been spending so much time and money to combat.
Looking back after two decades, I can’t escape the conclusion that the enemy we ended up fighting after 9/11 was ourselves.
And the New York Times has a running blog on the events of today's anniversary.