Like Pearl Harbor and President Kennedy’s assassination, my generation will ask: “Where were you on 9/11?” I’ve been thinking about that day, and the last 10 years, for some time now.
The morning of the attack Nancy and I were getting ready for work. My parents were visiting from Virginia, and they were staying with us at the house we had purchased 5 months earlier. They were scheduled to fly home on September 12th. Needless to say they didn’t get home until that following Sunday.
I was still working for Vitas Hospice and that Tuesday morning I had to go into the office for a meeting. During the meeting (on the 9th floor of a building in Mission Valley) I noticed that one of my co workers kept steeling glances out the window. I guess we were all wondering if the attacks were really over.
I found many of my patients wanted to talk about Pearl Harbor because they were feeling many of the same things: what does this mean? What will happen next? What do we do now? In both cases we knew that this was the beginning of a long conflict, but in 1941 we at least knew who we were fighting against. When Franklin Roosevelt spoke to Congress the next day, it was clear: we were attacked by the nation of Japan and President Roosevelt asked for (and received) a declaration of war, in accordance of Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution.
On 9/11 we knew pretty quickly that we were attacked not by a nation but by a terrorist organization (Al Qaeda) under the leadership of one person (Osama bin Laden). We were also learning that Al Qaeda was located primarily in Afghanistan under the protection of a group called the Taliban. Afghanistan was in the middle of a civil war, but the Taliban controlled most of the country by 2001. We had known about all these groups going back to the Clinton administration. The Taliban were known as an Islamic organization that read the Qu’ran (Koran) in such a way as to subjugate and virtually enslave women. Worldwide human rights organizations had been publicizing these events for a while, but while they were committing these crimes in Afghanistan, they posed no immediate harm to the United States.
The Bush administration had a fundamental choice to make: do we treat this as an act of war and ask for a declaration of war against Afghanistan, or do we treat this like a crime and seek out and arrest those individuals responsible for this act. At the time I believed there was a good case to be made for a declaration of war. Our government demanded that the nation of Afghanistan immediate hand over Osama bin Laden and anyone else associated with the attacks, and they refused. I believed then, and believe now, that we could have reasonably declared war on Afghanistan.
But I also believed (and believe more strongly now) that this was better pursued as a criminal case. This is grist for another day, but our intelligence services had mounds of information on Al Qaeda and bin Laden, but they didn’t share this information with each other and there was nobody to put together the pieces to have prevented this. As a matter of fact, the August 6, 2001 Presidential Daily Briefing predicted the attacks.
Given the intelligence we already had, I believe we could have found and prosecuted bin Laden within the next few months. But I believe the Bush administration committed a series of errors that historians of the next generations will find hard to imagine.
First, to the question of which direction, they choose neither. A declaration of war meant that anyone captured had to be classified as a prisoner of war and have the protections of the Geneva Convention. A criminal case meant that anyone arrested would have the protection of civil law.
Clearly the Bush administration did not want to be constrained by either and so they invented their own path. This allowed them to come up with terms such as “enemy combatant” and “extraordinary rendition.” It also allowed us to arrest anyone, anywhere in the world, take him to Guantanamo, Cuba and hold him there indefinitely with no access to justice. At least at the beginning they were held with no access to council, their own government, or any idea what would happen to them. Many of them are still there.
Unlike President Bush, I have enough faith in our justice system to believe that we could have brought them to trial here. My best example of this is the case of Timothy McVeigh. I don’t think anyone can reasonably argue that he didn’t have a spirited defense, or that justice was not served.
Now, 10 years later, I will give credit: Al Qaeda is greatly reduced and isn’t the threat it was. Osama bin Laden is dead, and most of its leadership is captured and unable to cause any more terror.
But we are still at war in two different countries: Iraq and Afghanistan. Again this is grist for another article, but I believe another mistake of the Bush administration is to focus not on Afghanistan, but on Iraq. Nobody seriously believes that Saddam Huessin had anything to do with 9/11, yet we invaded his country in 2003, dismantled the government, destroyed much of the infrastructure, killed thousands of civilians, and are still trying to get out.
And perhaps most troubling to me is the damage done to our reputation, and to our Constitution. President Bush claimed that they attacked us because we love freedom (they actually attacked us because of the presence of our troops in Arab countries and our support of Israel, but let’s not quibble). But what does this say about freedom when we hold people indefinitely and make up terms like “enemy combatant” for the express purpose of not having to deal reasonably with them?
I’m not sure if I’ll write on the 20th anniversary, but I hope we’ve restored much of what we’ve lost.