The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 were supposed to change everything. And they did.
The choices America made in the aftermath of the hijacking of four planes and the deaths of nearly three thousand people are with us every day — not just when we go to the airport, but in the subtext of every headline about debt, the NSA, Syria… And for the relatively few Americans who choose to serve in the armed forces, the wars we’ve fought since that day have consequences 99 percent of us will never understand.
Today — as a child who was born on the day the Towers fell is beginning sixth grade and a child who was in sixth grade that day could be entering her last year of college — the legacy of 9/11 is a foreign policy that has raised as many questions as it has answered, and a security state that has been nearly impossible to reform.
Here are five things to remember as we commemorate the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks for the 12th time.
Photo: 9/11 Photos via Flickr.com
We’re Still At War In Afghanistan
Depending on how you calculate the length of the Vietnam War, the war in Afghanistan is either the longest or the second-longest war in American history, claiming the lives of at least 2,200 U.S. soldiers and thousands of Afghan civilians. In October of this year, the war the U.S. has waged along with its NATO allies will be 12 years long.
The results of the so-called “surge” that began in 2009 led to an escalation of U.S. military casualties but dubious results. After the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, NATO decided in 2012 that all combat forces should be withdrawn by the end of 2014. But no final status of forces agreement has been reached with the Afghan government, which will likely include some residual military presence in the Asian nation.
Photo: The U.S. Army via Flickr.com
We Still Haven’t Implemented Many Of The 9/11 Commission’s Suggestions
It wasn’t until 2004 that the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission started being implemented and a decade later there are undoubtably huge improvements to the way first responders and intelligence agencies communicate, along with billions and billions in bloat in a national security apparatus that increasingly relies on outside contractors.
In 2011, the 9/11 Commission issued a report card that included “Nine Major Unfinished 9/11 Commission Recommendations.” Among the recommendations was a Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, which was just filled in May — a month before former CIA contractor Edward Snowden begand releasing classified National Security Agency documents, raising huge questions about the invasiveness of the security state. Before that the board had not been convened since 2008, as nominations were held up in Congress.
The Homeland Security department created in the wake of the attacks remains unwieldy and wasteful while the office of the Director of National Intelligence has never been given the sort of power over intelligence gathering that the Commission imagined.
Photo: Talk Radio News Service via Flickr.com
The PATRIOT Act Is Still In Effect — And Stronger Than Ever
The PATRIOT Act, passed in the weeks after 9/11, granted the American government new, broad powers to conduct surveillance. The law expired after a decade and was renewed in 2011.
Even one of the law’s authors — Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) — feels it is being used to justify improper invasions of privacy.
“I stand by the PATRIOT Act and support the specific targeting of terrorists by our government, but the proper balance has not been struck between civil rights and American security,” Sensenbrenner said in a statement. “A large, intrusive government — however benevolent it claims to be — is not immune from the simple truth that centralized power threatens liberty. Americans are increasingly wary that Washington is violating the privacy rights guaranteed to us by the Fourth Amendment.”
Much of the controversy comes from the fact that the law justifies the collection of information that may be simply “relevant” to a terrorist investigation. This has been used as the reasoning behind the mass gathering of metadata, which some compare to the outside of a letter. However, metadata can give insights into behavior most Americans would consider private.
Photo: Jim Arnold via Flickr.com
Guantánamo Bay Prison Is Still Open
The Bush administration’s policy of detaining “enemy combatants” at Guantánamo Bay Prison has created a human rights crisis that Congress and the president can’t or won’t resolve.
President Obama campaigned on closing the prison but was blocked by a vast majority of the Senate. Just this year the House voted again to prevent the president from closing the facility. Critics argue that Obama can simply release many of the prisoners to their home countries by simply declaring the end of hostilities with al-Qaeda, but this would definitely create a conflict with Congress. It would also open the administration up to a backlash if the prisoners ended up on the battlefield or conducting terrorism activities, as many released prisoners have in the past.
Thus more than four dozen men are being held indefinitely with no hope of ever being given a trial. In response, some have gone on a hunger strike, resulting in a policy of force-feeding that resembles torture.
Photo: Guantánamo Justice Centre Gjc
We’ve Spent More Than $5 Trillion On ‘Defense’ Since 9/11
Defense spending is about 20 percent of our entire federal budget, which is more than the next 13 nations spend — combined. Since 9/11, we’ve spent about $5 trillion just on defense, much of that money being kept off the budget until President Obama came into office, inheriting a 10-year deficit so large that cutting the military completely wouldn’t have been enough to pay for it.
The automatic cuts in the sequester included the first defense cuts since 9/11. Republicans are currently negotiating to restore those cuts and pay for them by slicing social spending.
Source: Office of Management and Budget, Graph: Dylan Matthews