When the second plane struck the World Trade Center at 9:03 AM on September 11, 2001, it was clear that America was under attack and a new era had begun. The subsequent hours, weeks, and months would be marked by great fear and uncertainty.
Americans wondered where was President George W. Bush. Was he safe? Would another attack take place? Did al-Qaeda have other sleeper cells in the United States?
For months after the attacks, fighter jets hovered over the skies of the New York area. Recovery teams worked tirelessly at the site of Ground Zero for eight months, first to find survivors and then to recover the remains of the 2,753 victims massacred by al-Qaeda.
In those very months, the Bush White House made fateful, terrible decisions that would catalyze changes to our world that would have repercussions for decades, leading to countless deaths in the Muslim world, a radicalization of U.S. politics, and the decline of American global power.
A More Brutal and Transnational Terrorism
In response to the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration launched the War on Terror, which began with the invasion of Afghanistan, the sacking of the Taliban regime, and attempts to kill or capture senior al-Qaeda figures in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Though Osama bin Laden would not face justice for almost a decade, al-Qaeda was initially battered by the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. The group, unsuccessfully, plotted new attacks on the West and U.S. partners. But with the U.S. invasion of Iraq, al-Qaeda found new life.
In the days after 9/11, officials in the Bush administration — including Vice President Dick Cheney and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz — conspired to invade Iraq.
That conspiracy quickly became policy. In January 2002, Bush declared Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as part of the “Axis of Evil.” Cheney aggressively pushed false claims that Iraq was in pursuit of a nuclear weapon. And his team engineered a National Intelligence Estimate that used bogus “intelligence” to claim that Iraq was “reconstituting its nuclear weapons program.”
On March 19, 2013, the U.S. war on Iraq began. Days earlier, Cheney told Tim Russert on Meet the Press that American forces “will be greeted as liberators.” But the illegal invasion of Iraq triggered a ferocious insurgency that transformed into a sectarian civil war. In this cauldron, more than 200,000 Iraqis were killed. And an even more radical group, eventually known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIS, was born.
The occupation of Iraq distracted U.S. and coalition forces from the campaign in Afghanistan, enabling the resurgence of the Taliban and al-Qaeda and their spread into Pakistan. And in the heart of the Middle East, an even more nihilistic and decentralized form of jihadism emerged that inspired “lone wolf” attacks in the West and elsewhere. And, for a period, it altered the maps of the Middle East with an insurgent proto-state — ISIS’s so-called caliphate — covering parts of Iraq and Syria.
The Erosion of Civil Liberties
The 9/11 terror attacks also radically empowered the U.S. national security apparatus both in legal authority and financial resources. The PATRIOT Act was swiftly passed in 2001, drastically increasing the surveillance powers of the U.S. government. The next year, Bush signed a secret executive order authorizing the National Security Agency to conduct warrantless wiretaps of U.S. citizens.
Those most impacted by these changes to law and policy were Muslims in the United States. Federal and even municipal entities like the New York Police Department dramatically expanded spy networks within Muslim communities, leading to widespread fear and fundamental violations of civil liberties.
Some very egregious examples of spying on law-abiding Muslims have since become public. The NYPD sent undercover agents to spy on a Muslim students’ whitewater rafting trip. And a paid federal government informant claims he was directed to pose as a Muslim to infiltrate mosques and sleep with Muslim women to obtain information on the community.
The Militarization of Policing
The expanded U.S. national security state largely targeted Muslims. But the post-9/11 wars would also accelerate the militarization of local law enforcement, with black American communities bearing the biggest impact.
War veterans joined local police forces, bringing to urban communities practices applied in the battlegrounds of Iraq. And local police departments obtained surplus military hardware from the Pentagon through a federal government program that began in 1997.
The Department of Homeland Security also provided grants to local law enforcement, subsidizing their purchase of military hardware, including armored personnel carriers and M-16 rifles.
The militarization of policing culture through military hardware and tactics has resulted in an upsurge in the use of lethal force against civilians.
The Radicalization of White Americans
As the Iraq war raged on, an anti-Muslim discourse would gain steam in the U.S., driven by money from right-wing donors, including the Donors Capital Fund and the Richard Mellon Scaife foundations.
This anti-Muslim or Islamophobic discourse gained momentum with the emergence of Barack Obama as the Democratic presidential nominee in 2008. Obama, a black American Christian born to a Muslim father, was wrongly depicted as a Kenyan-born Muslim by opposing political forces.
Capitalizing on this hysteria, the Donors Capital Fund gave $17 million to the Clarion Fund to distribute a DVD titled, “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West,” to tens of millions of voters in swing states ahead of the November elections in 2008.
This Islamophobic network overlapped with the Tea Party Movement, which emerged during the 2008 Great Recession. Prominent Tea Party figures in Congress, including Renee Ellmers and Michelle Bachmann, regularly used Islamophobic memes to question Obama’s loyalty to America. These forces prominently converged in the protests against plans to build an Islamic center in lower Manhattan — the “Ground Zero Mosque” — in 2010.
The paranoid Islamophobia eventually consumed the Republican Party, obliterating its moderate wing. In its place, radicalism was mainstreamed, led by celebrity businessman Donald Trump.
Trump provided a grand narrative for white resentment, merging all bigotries under a single tent. He attacked Hispanics as “rapists,” insinuated that there would be more brutal policing against blacks, and pledged to ban Muslims from the United States.
Trump mainstreamed a paranoid, rejectionist culture among white America — one that has deep roots in U.S. history. But its immediate genealogy begins with the choices made by the Bush administration in the months and years that followed 9/11.
The Rise of China and Weakening of America
The War on Terror has cost nearly a million lives and more than $8 trillion, according to a Brown University study. The greatest cost has been borne by the victims of the War on Terror. But along with the loss of lives of American servicemen and women, the U.S. has paid a substantial strategic price for its post-9/11 wars.
As the U.S. was busy waging wars against non-state actors on multiple continents, neglecting its communities at home, the very determined People’s Republic of China rose steadily as a global economic and military power.
In 2001, China joined the World Trade Organization. Within less than a decade, it emerged as the world’s exporter of goods. China — the “factory of the world” — soon graduated from churning out flip flops to flip phones. And now has its eyes on advanced technologies like semiconductors.
Since 9/11, China has rapidly closed the gap with the United States economically, militarily, and technologically.
China may never eclipse the U.S. as a superpower. But the misadventures of the Bush administration post-9/11 were great gifts to the Communist Party of China. In 2001, China’s economy was eight times smaller than that of the U.S. Today, that gap has shrunk to just 25 percent. And China’s economy could eclipse that of the U.S. in size by the end of this decade.