Sunday marks the passing of a decade since 19 hijackers took control of four commercial airliners and used them as guided missiles aimed at our nation’s government, military, and economy. Those 19 Al-Qaeda hijackers killed nearly 3,000 people, destroyed a building at the heart of our nation’s economic center, and severely damaged our nation’s military headquarters. Were it not for the bravery and courage of ordinary American’s on Flight 93, the hijackers may have struck the Capitol or the White House, injuring and killing hundreds more.
We all remember where we were when we first saw, or heard about the attacks. For a brief time afterwards, we ceased being people of multiple outlooks on life, diverse political views, differing races or religious faiths. We simply became Americans. We all flew our nation’s flag in our communities and in our hearts in the immediate aftermath, and in the weeks that followed.
The brave men and women in the ranks of our first responders fought back in the first hours after the Towers fell, and while the Pentagon and a crater in a Pennsylvania field burned. Then we sent our intelligence services and armed forces into battle in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Horn of Africa, and the Philippines to hunt down the members of Al-Qaeda responsible for the 9/11 attacks and attempt to halt the spread of a terrorist organization that uses a corrupted interpretation of Islam as its rallying cry. Our service members and intelligence officers went where they were ordered to go, and pursued our nation’s enemies, even if the justification for the war seemed less than completely understood or fully justified in the minds of our nation’s leaders or people. In spite of the terrible hardships of life on foreign battlefields, loss of limbs and of friends and comrades to death, broken marriages and failed relationships, they have kept faith with our nation and held to their oaths. They have continued the fight over these past ten years, and we have stood behind them, and we will continue to do so, so long as they are called to serve.
Ten years later – We have debated and will continue to debate the conduct of what the Bush Administration called ‘The War on Terror’, and what the Obama Administration now calls ‘The War on Al-Qaeda’. As a nation, we learned and will continue to learn from this debate. Challenges to the conduct of intelligence operations like the ‘warrantless wiretapping’ program and the detainment of terrorists and insurgents at Camp Delta were brought to the courts and litigated. The speeches made in Congress, the testimony before various committees, the resounding sound of public opinion, and the resultant new legislation. Legislation like the USA Patriot Act, passed and re-authorized the twice to improve and expand law enforcement and intelligence community capabilities under the law.
Ten years later – Executive Order 12333 has been amended, clarifying authorities and strengthening our nation’s intelligence services, the ‘warrantless wiretapping’ program continues under more rigorous oversight and under the rule of law affirmed in an August 2008 ruling by the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review. Closer and more collaborative relationships were forged within the intelligence community and between the intelligence community, law enforcement, and the military, and the National Counter Terrorism Center has been created to fuse and widely disseminate within the government all terrorism related intelligence and operational data.
Ten years later – Camp Delta remains open, and while President Obama has attempted to bring some of the detainees to the U.S. for trial within the criminal court system, the U.S. Congress has prohibited any appropriated funding from being used for such purposes. President Obama has since given permission for military trials to resume for the terror suspects, and signed an executive order to formalize the existing system of indefinite detention.
Ten years later – After being wrested from Taliban and Al-Qaeda control, Afghanistan has taken the first uncertain and hesitant steps towards a democratic form of government, but internal tribal loyalties hampering nationalism, dogged Taliban insurgents in the mountains dreaming of a strict Islamist State reborn, and an America strained, but unbeaten from ten years of fighting call into question Afghanistan’s future.
Ten years later – Osama bin Laden is dead. Buried at sea, the best unmarked grave we could find, he was laid to rest after the prayers of the faith he had defiled were said over his body by an American Muslim. He will not be a martyr to the evil cause he cherished, to those who choose hate and intolerance over peace and respect for others in spite of a different opinion or belief. He has paid for the pain and suffering he brought to our nation and others, and surely Allah has explained to him the depth of his mistakes in no uncertain terms.
In the years to come, the healthy debate in our nation will continue. We will continue to refine our approach to the problem of religious extremism used as an excuse to condone violence, while doing all we can to remain true to America’s ideals and beliefs of freedom and tolerance for other races, genders, faiths, and political viewpoints.
In the years to come, Al-Qaeda, its offshoots, and organizations like it will continue to exist in one form or another. Others will join the organization Bin Laden started, or create some splinter group fighting against America’s actions overseas or policies. They will commit acts of terror to further their cause and attempt to change America’s foreign policy, perceived or real, no matter which party holds the majority in Congress or occupies the White House. American citizens will be hurt and killed at home and abroad from time-to-time, and our intelligence, military and law enforcement organizations will do all they can to learn about these plots and then arrest, capture, or kill the plotters.
In the years to come, America will continue its fight against those who chose warfare and terror to attempt to gain political power or intimidate others. That fight will require more than just finding, fixing, tracking, and killing the leaders of these organizations. It will take continued efforts to inhibit radicalization in wherever and however it might occur, in order to break the generational cycle that breeds new radicals of any stripe. It will take several more decades, and it will cost both sides many young lives and billions in unrealized economic productivity; military, diplomatic, and humanitarian efforts. Fortunately we fought a long Cold War once, and while the reasons were different, the lives lost and billions spent were not. We won that long Cold War with the help of our friends and allies.
We and our allies will win this long war too.