Ten Years Later

A ttempting to assess the legacy of 9/11 on its tenth anniversary remains a complicated matter. We don’t know whether we are still in the beginning stages of this conflict against al-Qaeda and radical terrorists, somewhere in the middle, or approaching, at long last, its end. For perspective, consider, for a moment, a poignant and powerful scene from the American Civil War.

More than a year after Gettysburg, during the Battle of the Wilderness, Abraham Lincoln scarcely slept for four days as Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee squared off in combat for the first time. While men fought and bled in the tangled thickets of Virginia, Lincoln morosely paced in the halls of the War Department, aimlessly roamed about his office, and wandered up and down the White House corridors. “I must have some relief from this terrible anxiety,” he moaned, “or it will kill me.” And if the anxiety didn’t kill him, the news from the battlefield almost did. In the first two days of battle, Grant lost roughly a frightful 17,500 men; over the course of six weeks, he lost some 52,000 men, nearly as many as the United States did during the entirety of the Vietnam War.

As the appalling Union casualties continued to rise, the North was indeed in a foul mood; it literally began crying out for peace. All across the nation there were fervent antiwar rallies—and remember, this was a year after the Union victory at Gettysburg. An estimated 200,000 men deserted from the Federal Army, and everywhere that Lincoln turned, there was mounting dissent. The most distinguished journalist of the day, Horace Greeley, wrote, “Our bleeding, bankrupt, almost dying country longs for peace.” It did indeed. In 1864, Lincoln’s former general in chief, George B. McClellan, even ran against him for the presidency; in fact, the Democratic Party platform called for “immediate efforts for cessation of hostilities.” And Lincoln faced a barrage of criticism from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. One member of Congress cried out, “I am heartsick at the mismanagement of the Army,” while another critic averred, “Disgust with our government is universal.” When told to fire Ulysses S. Grant, Lincoln shot back: “I can’t spare him, he fights!”

Now imagine how easy it would have been for Lincoln to give up or to give in, or to grab the easy way out by negotiating some sort of peace with the South. Instead, he persevered, saved the Union, and ended slavery. That he didn’t give in is a central reason why he consistently remains one of America’s most beloved and respected presidents. But for our purposes today, it also shows the fickleness of history, and how difficult it is to divine what is around the bend—whether the year is 1864 or 2011—without the benefit of hindsight.

But with some certitude, there are some things we can say with clarity about the impact and legacy of 9/11. For starters, this is a conflict unlike any we have fought in history. True, one might conclude that with its willingness to kill innocents en masse, whether in the hundreds or hundreds of thousands, and with its messianic designs, al-Qaeda is reminiscent of Hitler’s Germany. But beyond the gas chambers, Hitler sought to achieve his vile goals with traditional means: generals, armies, tanks, the Luftwaffe, and so on. Moreover, as the head of the German Third Reich, the Nazis were bent on territorial conquest, with Berlin as their geographical epicenter. By contrast, al-Qaeda thrives wherever it can find a willing host, whether in the mountainous ridges of Afghanistan and Pakistan, a sprawling casbah in Yemen, a prayer room in a London mosque, among a disgruntled coterie of students in America, or even in the inner reaches of a US Army base in Texas. This is to say nothing of the murky reaches of cyberspace.

It is tempting to say that the War on Terror bequeathed to us by 9/11 is more similar to the Cold War than to traditional wars of the past. In both conflicts, the apparatus of a national security state had been built up. In both conflicts, periods of heightened anxiety have been punctuated by periods of waiting for the next shoe to drop. In both conflicts, there has been a profound conflict of ideologies rather than simply differences, whether territorial or economic or caused by a failure to read an adversary’s intentions. And in both conflicts, there have been those who believe that hawkish elements are inappropriately playing up the risks of the other side. The Cold War itself ended not with a major battle, but with a whimper, albeit a whimper with a dramatic flourish—an opening of the political system (however modest) in the Soviet Union, and then the dramatic fall of the Berlin Wall.

Of note, though: hawks and doves alike were able to see signs that the Soviet Union was cracking, well before its actual downfall. Will there then be similar telltale signs that al-Qaeda is also on the verge of an irrevocable defeat? Perhaps. And for all we know, we might already be near that point. Or for that matter, al-Qaeda might just slowly wither away, much the way the notorious Baader Meinhof and Red Brigades did.

But here is the most significant difference. Whether in the Cold War, or in more traditional wars past, there came a point when we sensed that the conflict was being won. When we had smashed an adversary’s military, when their leaders were dead or in disarray, when their economy was ailing, we knew the end was in sight.

Yet after 9/11, particularly in an age of weapons of mass destruction, there is always the possibility that even a battered al-Qaeda or a wayward cell could pull off a sensational strike against America, one in which the original 9/11 pales by comparison. It could be a nuclear weapon in a suitcase going off in San Francisco or Manhattan, leading to death and destruction on a scale never before seen. It could be a dirty bomb in Chicago, rendering the city uninhabitable for years. It could be the release of a biological pathogen, smuggled from the black market, which kills in the hundreds of thousands. It could be an attack on our power supply grid or a nuclear facility. Or it could be something as prosaic yet deadly as fifteen men shooting up fifteen different malls across the country at the same time. Or it could be something that our planners haven’t even thought of.

This is, then, the nightmare scenario, one in which our system of civil liberties would come under assault like never before. Potentially, so too could the orderly threads of our political system. And in such a case, al-Qaeda could likely find a new generation of eager foot soldiers and operatives and reconstitute itself all over again.

Over the last ten years, through a combination of hard work, careful policies, vision, and tenacity, not to mention a dose of good luck, the US has managed to prevent another successful attack on its soil. But if history is any guide, all we can say is that in this conflict, it is not by any means an infallible guide.

Since the morning of September 12, 2001, despite periodic scares and heightened security measures, Americans have otherwise largely been able to go on with their lives as normal. But Americans should know that somewhere in a distant corner of the nation’s psyche one haunting legacy of 9/11 must of necessity continue to remain: uncertainty. We can never rest secure that we will not be attacked again, without warning, and at a time and place of someone else’s choosing. Which means that in one form or another, the war on terror continues. And for whoever the president is, of whichever party, vigilance will remain the key word.


Jay Winik is a historian and the author of April 1865 and The Great Upheaval.

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