It has been 10 years since 9/11, and all of us who write about such things for a living are writing about it. That causes me to be wary. I prefer being the lonely voice, but the fact is that 9/11 was a defining moment in American history. On Sept. 12, 2001, few would have anticipated the course the resulting war would take - but then, few knew what to think. The nation was in shock. In retrospect, many speak with great wisdom about what should have been thought about 9/11 at the time and what should have been done in its aftermath. I am always interested in looking at what people actually said and did at the time.
The country was in shock, and shock was a reasonable response. The country was afraid, and fear was a reasonable response. Ten years later, we are all much wiser and sure that our wisdom was there from the beginning. But the truth is that, in retrospect, we know we would have done things superbly had we the authority. Few of us are being honest with ourselves. We were all shocked and frightened. Our wisdom came much later, when it had little impact. Yes, if we knew then what we know now we would have all bought Google stock. But we didn't know things then that we know now, so it is all rather pointless to lecture those who had decisions to make in the midst of chaos.
Some wars are carefully planned, but even those wars rarely take place as expected. Think of the Germans in World War I, having planned the invasion of France for decades and with meticulous care. Nothing went as planned for either side, and the war did not take a course that was anticipated by anyone. Wars occur at unpredictable times, take unpredictable courses and have unexpected consequences. Who expected the American Civil War to take the course it did? We have been second-guessing Lincoln and Davis, Grant and Lee and all the rest for more than a century.
This particular war - the one that began on 9/11 and swept into Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries - is hard to second-guess because there are those who do not think it is a war. Some people, including President George W. Bush, seem to regard it as a criminal conspiracy. When Bush started talking about bringing al Qaeda to justice, he was talking about bringing them before the bar of justice. Imagine trying to arrest British sailors for burning Washington. War is not about bringing people to justice. It is about destroying their ability to wage war. The contemporary confusion between warfare and criminality creates profound confusion about the rules under which you operate. There are the rules of war as set forth in the Geneva Conventions, and there are criminal actions. The former are designed to facilitate the defense of national interests and involve killing people because of the uniform they wear. The latter is about punishing people for prior action. I have never sorted through what it was that the Bush administration thought it was doing.
This entire matter is made more complex by the fact that al Qaeda doesn't wear a uniform. Under the Geneva Conventions, there is no protection for those who do not openly carry weapons or wear uniforms or at least armbands. They are regarded as violating the rules of war. If they are not protected by the rules of war then they must fall under criminal law by default. But criminal law is not really focused on preventing acts so much as it is on punishing them. And as satisfying as it is to capture someone who did something, the real point of the U.S. response to 9/11 was to prevent anyone else from doing something - killing and capturing people who have not done anything yet but who might.
Coming to Grips
The problem is that international law has simply failed to address the question of how a nation-state deals with forces that wage war through terrorism but are not part of any nation-state. Neither criminal law nor the laws of war apply. One of the real travesties of 9/11 was the manner in which the international legal community - the United Nations and its legal structures, the professors of international law who discuss such matters and the American legal community - could not come to grips with the tensions underlying the resulting war. There was an unpleasant and fairly smug view that the United States had violated both the rules of war and domestic legal processes, but very little attempt was made to craft a rule of warfare designed to cope with a group like al Qaeda - organized, covert, effective - that attacked a nation-state.
As U.S. President Barack Obama has discovered, the failure of the international legal community to rapidly evolve new rules of war placed him at odds with his erstwhile supporters. The ease with which the international legal community found U.S. decision makers' attempts to craft a lawful and effective path "illegal and immoral" (an oft-repeated cliche of critics of post-9/11 policy) created an insoluble dilemma for the United States. The mission of the U.S. government was to prevent further attacks on the homeland. The Geneva Conventions, for the most part, didn't apply. Criminal law is not about prevention. The inability of the law to deal with reality generated an image of American lawlessness.
Of course, one of the most extraordinary facts of the war that begin on 9/11 was that there have been no more successful major attacks on the United States. Had I been asked on Sept. 11, 2001, about the likelihood of that (in fact, I was asked), my answer would have been that it was part of a series of attacks, and not just the first. This assumption came from a knowledge of al Qaeda's stated strategic intent, the fact that the 9/11 team had operated with highly effective covert techniques based on technical simplicity and organizational effectiveness, and that its command structure seemed to operate with effective command and control. Put simply, the 9/11 team was good and was prepared to go to its certain death to complete the mission. Anyone not frightened by this was out of touch with reality.
Yet there have been no further attacks. This is not, I think, because they did not intend to carry out such attacks. It is because the United States forced the al Qaeda leadership to flee Afghanistan during the early days of the U.S. war, disrupting command and control. It is also because U.S. covert operations on a global scale attacked and disrupted al Qaeda's strength on the ground and penetrated its communications. A significant number of attacks on the United States were planned and prosecuted. They were all disrupted before they could be launched, save for the attempted and failed bombing in Times Square, the famed shoe bomber and, my favorite, the crotch bomber. Al Qaeda has not been capable of mounting effective attacks against the United States (though it has conducted successful attacks in Spain and Britain) because the United States surged its substantial covert capabilities against it.
Obviously, as in all wars, what is now called "collateral damage" occurred (in a more civilized time it would have been called "innocent civilians killed, wounded and detained"). How could it have been otherwise? Just as aircraft dropping bombs don't easily discriminate against targets and artillery sometimes kills innocent people, covert operations can harm the unintended. That is the nature and horror of war. The choice for the United States was to accept the danger of another al Qaeda attack - an event that I am certain was intended and would have happened without a forceful U.S. response - or accept innocent casualties elsewhere. The foundation of a polity is that it protects its own at the cost of others. This doctrine might be troubling, but few of us in World War II felt that protecting Americans by bombing German and Japanese cities was a bad idea. If this troubles us, the history of warfare should trouble us. And if the history of warfare troubles us, we should bear in mind that we are all its heirs and beneficiaries, particularly in the United States.
The first mission of the war that followed 9/11 was to prevent any further attacks. That mission was accomplished. That is a fact often forgotten.