As that infamous day – September 11 – is upon us, a mournful nation will come together once again to share the loss of thousands from whom their loved ones were savagely snatched by vicious terrorist attacks on two cities that are emblems of our economic and political power. Highjacked planes that day hit the Twin Trade Towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, DC, while another – possibly targeting the Capitol building in DC – was sabotaged, forced to crash well before it could reach the target by courageous American passengers who showed incomparable valor in the face of unprecedented cowardice of their attackers.
The death toll was enormous, and the attack’s pain and legacy everlasting. Apart from ruining their lives and dreams, it caused among survivors and rescuers crushing disabilities, terminal cancers, and untreatable psychological trauma.
Unlike life, bereavement is eternal. It never leaves.
Twenty years later, as we relive the grief and the nightmare of being attacked on our own soil by a brazenly devious enemy, what we remember with clarity is the instantly unifying sentiment we felt across these 50 United States – a mix of powerful outrage with a compelling desire to avenge.
We experienced also a loss of faith in the impenetrability of our national security, and a deep sense of shame and disappointment at the inadequacy of our intelligence apparatus to detect and preempt the massacres. That day exposed the chinks in our national security armor and the vulnerability and weakness of an intelligence outfit whose highly exaggerated prowess stood bare – to our and the world’s amazement and dismay. Suddenly, our giant superpower image seemed to be resting on clay feet.
An angered, shocked, humiliated, and surprised American government reacted swiftly to the attack, vowing to hunt down perpetrators.
The unending war against terrorists was launched.
It took ten long years to spot and kill Osama Bin Laden who had masterminded the September 11 attack. It took another ten painful years for a president to announce America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan – the nation that had vilely harbored Osama and his terrorist network.
Four consecutive U.S. presidents had continued the fight, and it fell to President Joe Biden to call it a day. While his intention was noble, he felt short in its execution. A hasty and ill-planned exit, even while being self-proclaimed as the speediest evacuation in military history, made America the world’s laughing stock.
There is irony and deep injustice in that after 20 years of hounding and extinguishing or overpowering terrorists and their Taliban collaborators, Afghanistan stands restored to the Taliban. With each U.S. base and military paraphernalia the Taliban took over, unopposed by us or Afghan forces, our prestige dipped lower until we were left with nothing but shame.
Considering we fought for 20 years in Afghanistan to avenge the calamity of America’s “Ground Zero” – only to end up silently witnessing the Taliban’s unobstructed takeover of Afghanistan – makes this September 11 especially painful and poignant.
With yesterday’s sworn enemies given a seat at the table to negotiate the terms of U.S. withdrawal and of future peace, we writhe in anguish over the insult to our nation’s prestige, and frustration with its pursuit of seemingly rudderless foreign and military policies.
Time takes nothing away, enabling pain to live on despite one’s best efforts. In interview after interview reported by the media, survivors recurrently speak of the never healing impact of the 9/11 trauma. They cannot cease to experience loss and rage over the mauling of their lives, but equally, over the challenge to their nation’s sovereignty.
As a nation living the irony and humiliation of a Taliban Restoration, and with the bitter taste of a well-intentioned, even timely, but a totally botched withdrawal, we feel knocked off the victory stand as the world’s number one athlete. Instead, we appear as champions at practicing the science of muddling through, unclear of our goals and actions, and not fully prepared for the fallout from badly executed good decisions.
Wars are tragic and immeasurably costly both in human lives and material resources. If we are calling off our stay in Kabul, expecting only to be compelled to go back there to face yet another incarnation of terrorists, we are chasing an illusion, and unjustly adding insult to the already unbearable injury of September 11.
As a people and government, we must ponder – of what use is waging a war which ends in us losing thousands more lives than were lost on September 11? Of what sense is lengthy, costly warfare when one day it is brought to an end unrealistically hoping to turn a stubbornly unforgiving enemy into a potential ally? And what justification is there in wars waged in distant lands to keep our homeland free of terrorists when we are reluctant to close our borders closer home –indiscriminately permitting illegal entrants including some disaffected miscreants to breach our ill-guarded and unprotected citadel? We must be willing instead to shore up our borders and to fight our wars on our battlefields, not overseas.
(Neera Kuckreja Sohoni is an Indian American published author and opinion writer. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.)