Tuesday marks 11 years since terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. It was the worst terrorist attack ever on U.S. soil, and it changed completely the way the U.S. government responds to terrorist threats.
In some ways, that's a good thing. After all, U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies were so disjointed and poorly managed that they missed clear warnings that could have prevented the deaths of more than 3,000 people. It was important to fix that.
But fixing the real problem isn't how things happen in politics. So instead of just improving intelligence and communications among government agencies and going after the people who attacked us, the U.S. government embarked on two ill-defined wars, created a massive new "Homeland Security" bureaucracy, doubled the defense budget (not counting the cost of the wars), and created overseas prisons and military commissions to avoid the basic requirements of the United States Constitution.
Some detainees were tortured in those prisons; the U.S. government is still covering it up today.
Much of that response to the 9/11 attacks wasn't only unnecessary, it was downright destructive.
So where are we now, more than a decade later? President Obama has ended the official use of torture, withdrawn U.S. troops from Iraq and plans to withdraw combat troops from Afghanistan in 2013 -- all good steps. But despite the decimation of al Qaeda, the group that attacked us, he's perpetuated some of the worst policies of the Bush administration's grand war against them: indefinite detention without trial of terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay and in Afghanistan, the use of a second-class justice system in the form of Gitmo military commissions, impunity for U.S.-sponsored torture, and commanding a perpetual and costly global war. Those are all moving us in the wrong direction.
Take the military commissions. Eleven years after the mass murder of thousands of Americans, the men suspected of plotting the attacks still haven't gone on trial. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his alleged co-conspirators remain stuck in the Guantanamo Bay prison, where they're still waiting to find out in pre-trial hearings if they're going to be allowed to even talk about their treatment (and in some cases, torture) in U.S. custody. Though they face the death penalty if convicted, members of their legal teams haven't even gotten necessary security clearances yet to be able to actually speak to them.
Victims of the 9/11 attacks deserved to see the perpetrators of that atrocity brought to justice long ago. They're going to have to wait years longer.
Even when a verdict in that case is finally reached, that won't be the end of it. Because the trials will be held in offshore military commissions, where the U.S. military provides the judge, jury, prosecutors and defense lawyers and no one knows if the U.S. Constitution even applies, a heavy cloud will hang over the outcome. What should have been a showcase for how we bring the most heinous criminals to justice consistent with our national values will be stained by lingering doubts around the world of whether the U.S. government gave these men a fair trial.
Meanwhile, the United States continues to operate in all-out military mode. Although U.S. officials have acknowledged that the al Qaeda that attacked us on 9/11 has been all but defeated, the government has ramped up the war against far-flung al Qaeda affiliates, some of which didn't even exist in 2001. Now, the U.S. military, with not-so-secret help from the CIA, is fighting not only in Afghanistan but in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and other parts of Northern Africa. Only we don't know exactly whom they're fighting, where or why, because the government says that's classified. We know that the United States has stepped up its use of remotely-piloted weaponized drones exponentially since 2009, but government officials won't say who's on the U.S. "kill lists" or what they've done.
Meanwhile, the military budget continues to bloat.
Eleven years after 9/11, it's time to re-think all that. As Wired's Spencer Ackerman put it recently, in some insightful advice for Obama in Charlotte, it's time to declare "an end to the United States' 11 years of fear and bloody, expensive global counterterrorist war."
Peter Bergen of the New America Foundation has been saying this since the killing of Osama bin Laden.
And even former CIA counterterrorism director Robert Grenier warned recently: "We have gone a long way down the road of creating a situation where we are creating more enemies than we are removing from the battlefield. We are already there with regards to Pakistan and Afghanistan."
Eleven years later, it's time to turn things around. Instead of generating more enemies and motivating more attacks, we should be doing the opposite. Sure, keep using intelligence and law enforcement and diplomacy and development and all the many tools the U.S. government has to track, prosecute, punish and thwart terrorism.
But spending trillions on secret wars, secret trials, offshore prisons and forever prisoners? There's no future in that.