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Looking Back on an Existential Crisis: 9/11 Ten Years Later

It has been a decade since the day that shattered our complacency in a fiery holocaust. In many ways, America hasn’t changed: people go about their daily lives unafraid, the same celebrities and pundits blather inanely on TV, and our politics are (if possible) even more acrimonious than in the wake of the 2000 election.
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Yet all of these things are superficial. 9/11 has deeply impacted history, our government, and the lives of millions of people. Perhaps most importantly, it has called into question basic assumptions about our nation, and its challenges to our principles still resonate today. It launched an expensive war on terror that (thus far) has succeeded in protecting American soil from further attack, but at a pyrrhic cost: we have expended trillions of dollars on counterterrorism efforts and two wars that continue to sap our military strength and have killed over 150,000 civilians and 6,000 American soldiers, devastating countless families around the world. Meanwhile, we have massive unemployment and inequality problems here at home, and our infrastructure is crumbling.
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Adding insult to injury, although the Arab Spring was completely unpredictable, the fundamentalism we have been so vigorously fighting against has lost ground in the Arab world. Public sentiment has turned against radical Islamists from Indonesia to Tunisia; our efforts seem increasingly pointless in light of this dramatic shift in opinion.
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In fact, the Bush administration’s ineptitude in prosecuting the war in Afghanistan fractured the war-torn country, and the Afghans’ inability to create a strong, functioning, and centralized government has made it increasingly likely that when we withdraw, the country will slide into chaos and civil war, further destabilizing an already unstable region and – particularly dangerously – spreading unrest to Pakistan.
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If this wasn’t enough, Bush and Cheney’s despicable authorization of torture (or, in their Orwellian euphemism, “enhanced interrogation techniques”) and refusal to abide by the law when dealing with enemy combatants at Guantánamo undermined America’s moral leverage in the eyes of the international community. After 9/11, the entire world stood in solidarity with America, but as we descended into savagery and became that which the terrorists hoped we would become, culminating in the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal, we relinquished the moral stature we once had and squandered the goodwill of the world. Bush and Cheney violated the Geneva Convention and the Constitution itself by cavalierly abandoning due process, fairness, and basic respect for human rights to return to medieval information-extraction methods.
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Worst of all, Bush and Cheney seized the opportunity afforded them by 9/11 to undermine civil liberties for American citizens. The NSA’s wiretapping and the constant expansion of executive authority in the name of fighting terrorism set a dangerous precedent, and the climate of close-mindedness and strict adherence to the administration’s official line discouraged candid discussions about how much liberty we were willing to sacrifice in the name of security. Anyone who spoke out against the wars or the way in which we fought the battle against terrorism was immediately branded an enemy sympathizer.
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Nuance and the necessity for an informed understanding of our enemies were thrown to the wind. As Karl Rove sneered, encapsulating the binary view of the world that the Bush administration so loved, “Liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers.” As Bush himself said, “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” The very principle of an open public discourse, so key to our way of life, was attacked.
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So, while the tragedy of 9/11 and the innocent men, women, and children who perished that day is too profound for me to adequately express, 9/11 did not end on that day. It continued to inflict a great deal of harm over the next decade. While the Obama administration has retreated slightly from Bush’s approach, and while Osama bin Laden has met his well-deserved end and al-Qaida is in disarray, the unfortunate impacts of that bloody day will undoubtedly plague us for years to come.
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