Nearly a decade ago, America launched a “War on terror.” It’s almost hard to remember Sept. 16, 2001, when then-President George W. Bush uttered that fateful phrase for the very first time.
At the time, it seemed to be what we, as a nation, wanted. We couldn’t just sit by and do nothing.
It was just five days after America was attacked by terrorists, armed with hijacked airplanes. The Twin Towers fell, the Pentagon was attacked, and more than 3,000 innocent civilians died. More yet could have died, had brave Americans not averted another possible attack by crashing United Flight 93 into a Pennsylvania field.
We wanted revenge for this unprovoked attack, a justifiable reaction.
But where would we get that revenge? A “war on terror” couldn’t be a war like any our country had fought before.
We would do battle with a faceless, formless enemy. Our opponent had no easily identified national boundaries, capitol or leadership. It had no homeland we could ravage, no army to dismantle.
How could we tell if we won? Or even if we were winning?
Then we were told that Al-Qaeda was responsible for the 9/11 attacks. That a man named bin Laden, their leader, had masterminded that fateful day. And our objective was set.
We invaded Afghanistan in search of Al-Qaeda. We deposed the Taliban government, but there was no sense of accomplishment. Bin Laden was nowhere to be found, and Al-Qaeda seemed unfazed by the Afghan war. If anything, Al-Qaeda seemed emboldened as the new word “insurgent” entered our vernacular.
In search of a new enemy, someone else we could beat, we invaded Iraq. Sure, the country had seemingly nothing to do with 9/11 but, as a nation, we remembered Saddam Hussein from the Gulf War. He was a bad guy, and possibly had weapons of mass destruction.
The international community objected, but we attacked anyway, breezed through the “war” in three weeks, and President Bush shouted “Mission Accomplished” from the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003. Yet the Iraq War continued through 2010, Hussein wouldn’t be found until Dec. 13, 2003, and WMDs would never be found.
When we found Hussein, hiding in a spider hole, nearly unrecognizably dirty and bearded, there was no national sense of accomplishment. He didn’t seem the invincible leader we’d been warned of, just a scared old homeless man.
And so, for 10 years, we’ve been mired in an ambiguous, amorphous “war on terror,” with no end – or clear objective – in sight.
Over the years we’ve gradually given up more and more of our freedoms in this war on terror. The PATRIOT Act allows for warrantless wiretapping, the Transportation Security Administration invents new ways to harass and grope harmless flyers daily, and the Department of Homeland Security – which didn’t exist before 9/11 – treats any international visitor as a hardened criminal.
We’ve been in this war so long, we’ve forgotten what it was like without it. We’re seeing purple threat levels as part of this “new normal,” a horrible defeatist attitude pervading the nation.
Because how could we ever win this war? It just was, and would be, war without end.
Then, Sunday, a forgotten name came to the forefront again.
Bin Laden had been killed, President Barack Obama said.
We found him hiding in Pakistan, not in a cave but in a mansion just miles from a Pakistani military base. Navy SEALs engaged in a daring mission, had a helicopter damaged, and were nearly intercepted by Pakistani fighter jets.
But they got him. And no Americans were harmed in the mission.
We finally had something to celebrate. Our first unmitigated victory in this long, long war.
The spectacle was reminiscent of the close of World War II, with Americans breaking into celebration across the nation. Chants of “U-S-A” echoed through baseball stadiums and on the White House steps.
It wasn’t the macabre, bloodthirsty celebration of revenge, of one man’s death. It was a nation rejoicing that, perhaps, finally, we had fulfilled our mission. That our war on terror was complete. That a new, new normal might look something like the old normal, back when people weren’t so afraid of everything.
With our objective complete, perhaps we will, finally, abandon our occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. Perhaps we can avoid the fate of so many empires and spend our trillions here, on our own pressing problems, rather than continue our costly, fruitless attempts to dictate how other nations are run.
We won’t know for weeks, months, and years to come what the true impact of bin Laden’s killing will be.
But let us hope it is represents an ending. An end to an endless war on terror, and to the foolish notion that events transpiring half a world away are more important than the hungry, homeless and jobless which represent an ever-increasing percentage of our population.
More than that, let us hope it is a beginning. With America’s national distraction complete, may we rise to prominence once again.
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