Sept. 11 marks a horrifying, quasi-sacred anniversary. The scale of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was as colossal as it was unconscionable. Analogues from history fall away. Another Pearl Harbor? The madness of Sept. 11 violated the principle of noncombatant immunity, the central tenet of just war (presupposing that war is ever just.)
But this was no ordinary attack, presaging no ordinary war.
The 9/11 attacks were a crucible that tested the mettle of the American people. The sense of solidarity, the visceral outrage, the windfall of goodwill, blew from Europe to the Pacific Northwest. The gust elevated people of all faiths, traditions, and races, reminding the world that the United States is a nation predicated upon a civic creed. Liberty, democracy, and justice are the catechism. Active citizenship and service above self signal true faith.
More than a decade ago, Washingtonians were reassured that the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and the Columbia and Snake River dams were secure. Secure? Overnight, nightmare scenarios became vivid. Fear migrated from the ashes of the World Trade Center to Naval Station Everett. Terror was ubiquitous.
Many Northwesterners answered the call to service and joined the armed forces. Many become civically engaged or enrolled in National Service programs such as AmeriCorps. And many fell silent as the United States girded for the moral quicksand of asymmetrical warfare.
On Sept. 16, just five days after the horror of 9/11, Vice President Dick Cheney told Tim Russert of Meet the Press, “We also have to work, though, sort of the dark side, if you will. We’ve got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies, if we’re going to be successful. That’s the world these folks operate in, and so it’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective.”
For the George W. Bush Administration, the dark side included the use of waterboarding, extraordinary rendition of prisoners to countries not averse to torture, and a twisting of the rule of law through the extrajudicial detention of enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In 2009, President Obama signed an executive order banning the use of torture, but the United States continues to navigate the dark side through drone warfare and covert ops. For many Americans, the ends justify the means.
How will our government’s actions be viewed through history’s lens? It still feels too soon, too raw. 9/11 stings. It always will.