Sept. 11, 2001, 8:46 a.m. You remember where you were. You remember what you felt. American life would never be the same again — how we boarded a plane, how we viewed our neighbors. The images of hijacked planes slamming into skyscrapers, streets covered in ash, a scorched field in Pennsylvania, people running — but not knowing where to — are etched in our memories. Our friends, neighbors and family members — 2,977 of them — are gone. And within hours of realizing that a new enemy had emerged, defiant, we, too, became resolved: Never again.
Ten years later we are wiser, smarter and safer; our homeland security is strengthened. The American people have adapted to the new normal, and life, as they say, goes on. But we have paid a price. From the streets of Baghdad to the caves of Afghanistan, America’s blood and treasure have been spilled. To date, 6,234 men and women in uniform have made the ultimate sacrifice to preserve the very freedoms and liberties that have defined this nation.
The decade since 9/11, however, could have been very different if not for the leadership of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Often the answer to the question, “What happens next?” can be a heavy burden for leadership to bear. Every decision matters and carries with it consequences. So in those hours and days immediately following the attack, decisions were made that would define very clearly for America what happened next.
Former Justice Department official John Yoo noted that President Bush’s decision to declare the struggle against al-Qaida terrorists a “war on terror” was an important and pivotal turning point for the United States. “Unlike past administrations, he chose not to view al-Qaida as a Middle Eastern version of the Mafia, if on a grander scale. The 9/11 attacks constituted an act of war — they were a decapitation strike, an effort to eliminate our nation’s leadership in a single blow. Al-Qaida’s independence from any nation state would not shield it from the American military and leave it to the tender mercies of the FBI and the courts.”
From such early decisions, other, more important and course-changing decisions by the Bush administration and Congress would create the cornerstone of a network of strategies to protect the American people from further attacks. From the bipartisan passage of the PATRIOT Act, and the expanded interception of international terrorist emails and phone calls, to the consolidation of fragmented national security agencies and the “enhanced interrogation” techniques of terrorists, all of these actions would result in broader and better intelligence gathering.
As the nation settled back into its routines and the years moved us further away from the terror of that September day, the cord of unanimity that bound our wounds began to unravel, and the chants of “USA, USA” mutated into “No more war.” But for President Bush, the passage of time and the changing of attitudes could not slow or end our resolve to secure the future of America from attack.
In 2008 the fog of war combined with the heat of presidential politics to form a lethal elixir. Hot rhetoric and improbable promises not only opened old wounds but also created new ones. And while President Bush’s resolve may have held firm, for the American people and those running for the presidency, it was time for something different.