Abelson: Does 9-11 still trump everything?

Sept. 11, 2011 marks the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on American soil that left more than 3,000 people dead and reduced the iconic World Trade Center to rubble.

In the decade that has passed since this horrific event, the United States has become embroiled in major conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, introduced a host of security measures to thicken its border with Canada and Mexico (albeit for different reasons) and maintained a steadfast commitment to winning the War on Terror. The mastermind of 9-11, Osama bin Laden, was cornered and killed by a team of U.S. Navy Seals in May 2011, but the list of America’s enemies continues to grow. While the United States tries desperately to navigate its way through the worst recession since the Second World War, the nation’s security will undoubtedly remain its most important priority.



As many of America’s allies have acknowledged in the post-9-11 era, security not only trumps trade in the United States, it trumps everything.

On Sept. 20, 2001, when President George W. Bush declared to a joint session of Congress that, with respect to the War on Terror, you “are either with us or you’re with the terrorists,” he signaled to the international community that, if necessary, the United States was prepared to wage a unilateral war against terrorists and the states that harbored them. A decade before, his father, President George H.W. Bush, recognized the strategic importance of building a coalition of forces before committing American troops to the Gulf. Unfortunately, his eldest son didn’t have the patience or the foresight to think about anything other than how the United States could retaliate.

For the younger Bush, diplomacy was what historians and political scientists discussed with students; it was not something to get in the way of power politics.

In his mind, the United States had been attacked, and as commander-in-chief, he was constitutionally obligated to protect the homeland. That was a promise he made to himself and to the American people. If it meant sacrificing thousands of lives and trillions of dollars to prevent another assault on U.S. soil, so be it.

Despite mishandling the War on Terror, President Bush has few regrets about deploying troops to Afghanistan and Iraq. As he proudly proclaimed in his recent memoir, Decision Points, America must have done something right. There hasn’t been another attack: Los Angeles International Airport has not been bombed; the Brooklyn Bridge remains standing; and the Hoover Dam is intact.

True enough. But has America achieved everything it set out to do? Is it time to pull out the ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner that was displayed so prominently on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003? Not quite.

As America’s War on Terror continues, it is incumbent upon those who study and think about the United States to ask serious questions about what has transpired both domestically and on the world stage since 9-11. Has global terrorism been put to rest? Is the United States safer now than it was before the attacks? What impact has thickening the U.S. border had on its continental neighbors?

What we do know is that since 9-11, there have been several terrorist attacks in both developed and developing countries – most recently on July 23 when a lone Norwegian gunman killed close to a hundred people. Although the United States has not suffered any additional attacks, many former policy-makers, including anti-terrorism czar Richard Clarke, remain convinced that the United States is vulnerable to future acts of terrorism.

What we also know is that amidst the shock and horror surrounding the events of 9-11, both Congress and the American people were prepared to accept legislation that would give intelligence agencies greater latitude in monitoring the private lives of U.S. citizens. In discussions about national security versus individual liberties, there was little doubt which would win out.

America’s continental neighbors have also been targeted by America’s War on Terror.

Canada, in particular, was chastised by policy-makers on Capitol Hill who claimed that several of the 9-11 hijackers crossed from our country into the United States. It didn’t matter that the allegations were unfounded.

If Canada is to blame for anything, it would be for underestimating the impact the terrorist attacks had on the American psyche. Concerns about Canada’s supposed porous border convinced Congress to implement the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative requiring Canadians to carry passports both on flights to the United States and through all land border crossings. Despite growing concerns about the negative impact additional security measures may have on cross-border trade, there is little reason to believe America will alter its course.

The only expectation that the United States has of Canada is that we will follow along.

So far, they’re right. Policy-makers in Canada have expressed reservations about America’s security posture, but Ottawa has been more than prepared to accept Washington’s lead.

In the aftermath of 9-11, America has played both the role of victim and aggressor. As a victim, the United States did not have to justify invading Afghanistan. The world understood why President Bush deployed troops; he had every right to protect Americans against future attacks.

Unfortunately, the United States was not prepared to harness the support of the international community to create more stability in Afghanistan. Making Afghanistan a safer place wasn’t in the cards. Destroying terrorist cells and tracking down bin Laden was what America came to do. But once President Bush decided to invade Iraq, he could no longer make the case that the United States was a victim. After Bush had exhausted all of his excuses for toppling Saddam Hussein, the only reasonable conclusion that could be reached was that the United States had waged war against a country that did not assist the hijackers in 9-11, did not have weapons of mass destruction, and did not pose any immediate danger to the American homeland. The United States decided to flex its muscles because it could.

In the excitement surrounding the historic election of Barack Obama in 2008, millions of people in the United States and around the globe hoped that his administration could redress the sins of his predecessor. But rather than usher in a new era of American foreign policy that would demonstrate respect for the rule of law, Obama has chosen to run with the baton he was handed.

In doing so, he has reminded all of us that while the players may change, the political game that has played out in Washington for the past decade can only have one outcome: the United States, and only the United States, will decide when the War on Terror is over. Until then, more soldiers and civilians will die or suffer terrible wounds, and trillions more dollars will be spent on a war that, in all likelihood, cannot be won.

In the end, America will claim a shallow victory. A vital question, however, remains: How long will the United States invoke the memory of 9-11 to justify its military incursions?


Donald Abelson, a Department of Political Science professor, serves as director of both the Canada-U.S. Institute and Centre for American Studies at The University of Western Ontario.