09/11/2013 12:16 pm ET Updated Nov 11, 2013

After 9/11, Americans Undermined National Security

We will not forget the things we are officially called on to remember today -- how the hijacked jets demolished the landmark towers that had seemed permanent, the helpless people plunging to their deaths before our eyes, the young children whose parents disappeared forever. You remember. We all remember, anniversary or not.

It's what happened after that day that we need to recall with import, how we used 9/11 as a jumping off point to one of the most wasteful, pointless and destructive dozen years in American history, embarking on foreign military misadventures abroad while shredding civil liberties at home -- all in the name of strengthening the very national security we undermined.

On 9/11, we rightfully honor the dead and recall our anguish, but we ought not squander these sentiments on mere ritual. We ought to remember so we avoid future such tragedies. We need to reflect on how the best impulses of our American identity -- our compassion, our courage, our willingness to marshal resources in pursuit of a cause -- too easily lead us astray, awakening our basest qualities: a tendency to respond to threats by taking refuge in decisive action absent an enlightened plan; a willingness to embrace excessive force when we feel wronged.

We need this sort of reflection just as much as we need the memorials to the people we lost on 9/11, because the world has only grown more perilous and complex since 2001. Our national challenges have only deepened. The ill consequences of using injustice as justification for wrong-headed policies have only expanded. We face a nuclear North Korea and an Iranian regime pursuing that capability, the ever-festering problem of Israel and Palestine, a globe full of millions of young people unable to find adequate jobs, a rivalry with a rising China, and a worldwide crisis of climate change that threatens no end of conflicts over resources such as energy and water.

And now we are listening to our president make appeals to national security and the imperative to punish a brutal dictator -- this time in Syria -- without explaining how a military response will make anyone anywhere safer. We are again asked to sign off on wielding our might as a virtue without being told how that wielding will inoculate us against risk.

Twelve years ago today, the United States suffered an unequivocally evil blow. And after 9/11, we took the terrorist bait and chased the sources of that evil to places of our own undoing. We delivered ourselves into ill-conceived, poorly executed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, costing us many more lives than we lost in the strikes on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon while endowing terrorists with the gift of potent recruitment propaganda.

After 9/11, we embraced torture as a means of combating the malevolent forces that threaten our security, discarding a fundament of our national character and amplifying the dangers confronting us.

We packed prisoners into cells at Guantanamo and eviscerated the very constitutional norms that make this a country worth preserving. We unleashed drone strikes on enemy encampments, subjecting innocents to terror and further undermining our claims to moral superiority.

We reacted to this mortal blow on our people by squandering years and treasure that might have been applied to bettering American cities, schools and employment prospects, and we did so without undercutting the threats against us.

This is indeed a day to celebrate the people who did not deserve to die on 9/11, to mourn their deaths and remind ourselves of the nefarious forces that still threaten us. But it is also a day to recognize that the way in which we respond to threats constitutes one the gravest perils to our national security.