Putting 9/11 back into context

Miles Taylor Co-Founder, Partisans.org
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In the lead-up to the tenth anniversary of 9/11, news outlets have been flush with commentary about America’s “lost” decade — or as the National Journal put it, without a hint of bias, America’s “decade of disaster.”

From the opinion pages of The New York Times to those of Slate, these commentators share a similar perspective on the U.S. response to the 2001 attacks: It was a massive overreaction that has cemented America’s decline.

At the core of these assertions is the argument that the attacks themselves really weren’t an “act of war” but rather only a “crime,” as Great Britain’s former M15 chief opined last week.

It is a crucial question. Understanding 9/11 as an act of war has major implications for U.S. policy even today — from the validity of military detention for al Qaeda operatives to the legality of lethal drone strikes against extremists overseas.

By redefining the very nature of the attacks themselves, critics make it far easier to lament the perceived excesses they so loathe in American foreign policy.

So which is it, was 9/11 an “act of war” or a “crime”? The legal arguments for the former are robust. Al Qaeda and its associated movements have formally declared “war” on the West and are in the business of arming, training and dispatching foot soldiers. Moreover, the group’s 2001 attack was on a scale only seen previously in wartime, with the number of casualties exceeding the body count of several wars in U.S. history.

Both NATO and the United Nations classified the event as an “armed attack,” a phrase used in international law to connote an act of war. This paved the way for NATO to invoke Article 5, the first time the group had ever activated the mutual defense pact in its history.

But perhaps the best way to understand 9/11 is to ask whether it bore the hallmarks of a wartime “experience.” In other words, did it look and feel like war?

To answer that question, it’s worth taking a look at an anecdotal summary:

September 11 began as a beautiful day. Around 9 a.m., though, the calm New York morning was shattered by the sound of explosions. “I [had] never heard such a noise,” reported one New Yorker. “Seemed as if thunder wasn’t anything … It was enough to deafen [anybody].” Witnesses stared at the site of the explosions, which appeared “to just be covered with flame” and soon the area was littered with hot, twisted metal from the attack. Medical teams rushed to care for the hundreds of injured and were unsure how many might be dead. The location of the attack was described as a “scene of carnage,” with pedestrians reportedly seeing “pieces of hands and bodies all torn to pieces” on the ground as they fled.

The above description is actually not from September 11, 2001 — but rather from September 11, 1814. That was the last day of battle in the War of 1812, when the British launched a morning land and sea attack against American troops in upstate New York.

No historian would doubt that the British attack was an act of war. But every detail above could also be used to describe the 2001 attacks.

The point here is not to be clever but to show that the 9/11 attacks were war-like in every sense of human experience. Americans felt like the Polish in 1939 when struck by Hitler’s forces or like the South Koreans in 1950 when the North invaded. This was no simple “crime.”

Not since the 1800s had something so disrupted the functions of the U.S. government. Then, British troops set Washington ablaze, and a government employee recorded that “the metropolis of our country [had been] abandoned to its horrid fate.” Anxious Americans who had fled the city could see it burning in the distance.

Similarly, on 9/11 much of official Washington was evacuated, and Time magazine noted somberly that the nation’s capital had become “a ghost town.” Like those who had fled the British, Americans on 9/11 could see smoke rising above Washington from miles away.

For New Yorkers, the scene was worse. An article appearing the next day in The New York Times captured the feeling of a war zone:

The horror arrived in episodic bursts of chilling disbelief, signified first by trembling floors, sharp eruptions, cracked windows … Dense plumes of smoke raced through the downtown avenues … Every sound was cause for alarm. A plane appeared overhead. Was another one coming? No, it was a fighter jet. But was it friend or enemy? … People hid beneath cars and each other. Some contemplated jumping into the river. For those trying to flee the very epicenter of the collapsing World Trade Center towers, the most horrid thought of all finally dawned on them: nowhere was safe.

“I don’t know what the gates of hell look like, but it’s got to be like this,” said one employee who escaped the World Trade Center. “I’m a combat veteran, Vietnam, and I never saw anything like this.”

If this wasn’t war, many thought, what is?

Sadly, the narrative that says the 9/11 attacks were only a “crime” makes it easier for critics to chide the United States for its supposed overreaction. The further we get from that fateful day, the easier it becomes for commentators to make such lazy assertions.

A better understanding of the past decade is that the United States did what it had to do by launching a war against extremists hell-bent on killing its people. This was not an overreaction. It was the only reaction. Doing anything less would have been unforgivable.

Now, with al Qaeda’s back against the ropes and America spared from any major attacks for the past 10 years, the United States can mark a major milestone on this September 11th.

There is still much to be done, but the past decade does not paint an image of a country in decline. It’s an image of a superpower staring down the enemies of freedom and proving to the world once again that, when stirred in its defense, America will prevail.

Miles Taylor served as a White House appointee in the George W. Bush administration and is co-founder and senior editor at the political opinion website Partisans.org.