The post-9/11 world is such a huge chunk of my working life, and 20 years is a milestone and worth some reflections, so I guess I should write something about it. I wasn’t in the country on that day – I was returning home from a mission in the Caribbean, and was waiting in Puerto Rico for my flight to Miami as the first airplane hit the World Trade Center.
I have stories about trying to get home (it took some string pulling and four days), and of course all that has followed from the US reaction to that day, from getting frantic calls for information on Afghanistan (I had been there in the late 1980’s), to helping with aspects of the Iraq invasion planning, and so many other episodes. But, to be honest, I think the time for those kinds of stories has long past.
In the days after the attack I was involved in a position paper pointing out that overreacting had the potential to cause more harm than the original attack. It was pointed out that in terms of deaths, the terrorist attack was a blip in our yearly murder rate (therefore Americans are better than killing ourselves that the jihadis). That this wasn’t, as was being alleged, a failure in intelligence – we had all the pieces, and some analysts had put them together, it just wasn’t communicated to the right people for action. It wasn’t really even a major failure in security – minor changes in procedure could and should have caught the hijackers. The Taliban were open to turning over those thought to be directly behind the attacks – and of course those ultimately responsible, the Wahhabi extremists and their financial backers in the Saudi government, were well known. So maybe we shouldn’t over react, but just kill the planners in some suitably public and messy way, quietly (but equally messily) take out a couple Saudi princes who were supporting the spread of Wahhabism to make that point, tweak what needed tweaking, and move on.
But tweaking and minor fixes isn’t the American way. Neither, apparently, is moving on.
War in Afghanistan. War in Iraq. War in Syria. US forces engaged in open combat across the horn of Africa. Proxy wars across the region. A new, dystopian “Department of Homeland Security” with intrusive and expensive security theater. Militarization of civilian police forces. Fear. Paranoia.
Was it an over-reaction, and was it worth it? Consider: the US has almost certainly killed over TWO HUNDRED times more civilians – CIVILIANS – in its response to 9/11 than were killed in the original attacks. We have directly inflicted several thousand times – probably as much as 10 thousand times, and if you include secondary factors, an eye watering thirty thousand times – as much economic damage on ourselves and the world as was inflicted on us on that day 20 years ago.
And the result? Near East Asia is in far worse shape today than it was twenty years ago. American society has fractured, I think in significant part due to the self inflicted stresses and distorted priorities the last twenty years have brought. So while those with a vested interest in not being overly reflective on all this will talk about heroics (and there was much) and loss (again, there was much), I can’t help but think we turned a tragedy into a catastrophe.
I will close with one 9/11 related story, the reason for the picture of the Iguana. I was on the first airplane to depart Luis Munoz Marin International Airport that was allowed to return to the US. We had problems getting take-off clearance. Not security, or paperwork, on any of the usual reasons.
But because there had been no traffic for several days, the Iguanas had taken over the runways and taxiways, the tarmac staying warm overnight, and it being a perfect place to bask in the morning sun. This a problem at SJU on normal days, but on Friday September 14th, 2001, it was extreme. A truck had to preceded our airplane as we taxied out with line crews jumping out and shooing the lizards out of the way; then did the same to clear the runway. We were told they ran back to their spots as soon as we took off, and it took days for things to return to normal.