The post-9/11 moment offered them their main chance to transform their dreams into reality and they seized it by the throat. They wanted to "take the gloves off." They were convinced that the presidency had been shackled by Congress in the Watergate era and that it was their destiny to remove the chains. They believed in a "unitary" presidency: an unchained executive with unfettered power to do whatever he wanted, preemptively and in any fashion he cared to. And in their own fashion, they were visionaries in their urge to establish a Pax Americana first in the Greater Middle East and then planet-wide.
Anything, they thought, was possible, given a nation shocked and terrified by the apocalyptic vision of those towers coming down, even if the damage had been done by just 19 hijackers armed with box cutters who belonged to a terror organization capable, at best, of mounting major operations every year or two. "[B]arely five hours after American Airlines Flight 77 plowed into the Pentagon... [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld was telling his aides to come up with plans for striking Iraq," CBS News reported, even though he was already certain that al-Qaeda had launched the attack, not Saddam Hussein. ("'Go massive,' the notes quote him as saying. 'Sweep it all up. Things related and not.'")
And, of course, from Afghanistan to Iraq and beyond, they did "sweep it all up." As a group, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and many other top figures in the administration were in love with the U.S. military. They were convinced that a force with no peer on the planet could bring various "rogue powers" instantly to heel and leave the U.S. dominant in a way that no power in all of history had ever been. Throw in control over the flow of oil on a global scale and their dreams couldn't have been more expansive. But when you write the history of this particular disaster, don't forget the fear, either.
As was said over and over again at that moment, 9/11 "changed everything." That meant they felt themselves freed to do all the mad things we now know they did, from preemptive wars and occupations to massive programs of torture and kidnapping, as well as the setting up of a global penal system that was to be beyond the reach of any law or the oversight of anyone but those under their command. They green-lighted it all, but don't for a second think that they weren't afraid themselves. To touch that fear (bordering on paranoia), you only have to read Jane Mayer's book The Dark Side where she describes Vice President Dick Cheney in that post-9/11 period being "chauffeured in an armored motorcade that varied its route to foil possible attackers." In the backseat of his car (just in case), she added, "rested a duffel bag stocked with a gas mask and a biochemical survival suit." And lest danger rear its head, "rarely did he travel without a medical doctor in tow."
Yes, they were on top of the world and undoubtedly chilled to the bone with fear as well. And fear and impunity turned out to be an ugly combination indeed. Both the fear and the sense of license, of the freedom to act as they wished, drove them fiercely. Take Michael Hayden, then head of the NSA, later of the CIA. Of that moment, he recently said, "I actually started to do different things. And I didn't need to ask 'mother, may I' from the Congress or the president or anyone else. It was within my charter, but in terms of the mature judgment about what's reasonable and what's not reasonable, the death of 3,000 countrymen kind of took me in a direction over here, perfectly within my authority, but a different place than the one in which I was located before the attacks took place." In other words, on September 10, 2011, he was simply the director of the NSA. On September 11th, without ever leaving the NSA, he was the president, Congress, and the chief justice of the Supreme Court all rolled into one.
Given what, as Hayden (and others) suggest, they couldn't help but do, it's good to know that there were some people who could. It's a point that Rebecca Gordon, author of Mainstreaming Torture, makes in a particularly moving way today in her piece, "Saying No to Torture, A Gallery of American Heroes."