Becoming the evil we deplore — September 14, 2001 and its consequences

An Afghan boy looks on, as U.S. soldiers serving with A Company, 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne, patrol a village in the Giro district, Ghazni province, Afghanistan, May 8, 2012. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Gustavo Olgiati, public domain, Picryl.

By Jonathan D. Greenberg, Director, USF Institute for Nonviolence and Social Justice
This essay is dedicated to the blessed memory of every person killed in the terrorist attacks that took place on September 11, 2001 and every person killed in the wars that followed; and to every person wounded, injured, disfigured, sick or expelled, or who lost parents, husbands, wives or children as a result of those attacks and wars; to every victim of war crimes and crimes against humanity and to every soldier or militia member recruited by force; and to the courage of so many heroic people throughout the world who have struggled to help vulnerable members of their community to survive terrorism, war, displacement, religious intolerance, sexual violence and trafficking, hatred, extortion, homelessness and torture, and who themselves have struggle to survive in the midst of such horrors; and to the extraordinary moral integrity of Representative Barbara Lee, the only member of Congress to vote against the open-ended authorization to war submitted to Congress by President George W. Bush on September 14, 2001.  

The meaning of 9/14

Nineteen flag draped caskets containing the remains of U.S. military service members killed in Dhahran, Saudi, Arabia bombing sit in the Travis AFB, Calif.- 60th Airlift Wing, C-5 Galaxy at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware awaiting removal for a memorial service on June 27th 1996.


On this day twenty years ago, three events took place in Washington D.C.:

First, President Bush declared September 14, 2001 a “National Day of Prayer and Remembrance” to mourn and remember 3,000 victims of  the Al-Qaeda terrorist attacks in New York City and the Pentagon three days earlier.  In a coordinated response, the Washington National Cathedral (the unofficial “spiritual home of our nation” and “a house of prayer for all people”) convened a national prayer service, attended by our nation’s leaders, including Members of Congress.

Second, President George W. Bush declared a national emergency, thereby assuming a broad range of executive powers that would otherwise be prohibited under the Constitution and federal law; and

Third, with near unanimity (the Senate voted 98 to zero, the House of Representatives voted 420 aye, 1 nay) Congress enacted the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) of September 14, 2021.  By this action, Congress gave President Bush and all subsequent presidents the authority “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or  aided the terrorist  attacks that  occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”

These events have disappeared into the shadows of collective memory, the footnotes of  U.S. legal historiography and the archives of the Federal Register.  They should be reclaimed into our memory — because they carry momentous symbolic, political and legal significance.   

But we cannot understand the meaning of 9/14 until we reflect on what happened three days earlier, and in the subsequent twenty years.


Witness testimonies

U.S. Army soldiers patrol the area in support of Afghan elections after encountering small-arms fire in the Khogyani district of the Nangarhar province, Afghanistan; photo, unattributed, Picrl, public domain.


“There is a voice crying through the vista of time saying, “He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword.”  (Matthew 26:52).  And history is replete with the bleached bones of nations who refused to listen to the words of Jesus at this point.  The method of violence would be both impractical and immoral.  If this method becomes widespread, it will lead to terrible bloodshed, and that aftermath will be a bitterness that will last for generations.” Martin Luther King, Jr, “Non-Aggression Procedures to Interracial Harmony,” Address Delivered at the American Baptist Assembly, 23 July 1956


Operational flexibility: This is a highly classified area. All I want to say is that there was “before” 9/11 and “after” 9/11. After 9/11 the gloves come off… “No Limits” aggressive, relentless, worldwide pursuit of any terrorist who threatens us is the only way to go and is the bottom line.”  Cofer Black, Director of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center (1999-2002), Unclassified Testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, US Congress, 107th Congress, 2nd Session, Sept. 26, 2002.


[Outside Faluja], in October 2003, the insurgents had used a cheap remote control to ignite barrels of concealed explosives just as the U.S. armoured patrol rumbled by, killing one paratrooper, wounding several.  Insurgents, hidden in houses nearby, followed with bursts from their AK-47s.  The Americans promptly dismounted and with their M16s and M4s began pouring lead into everything they could see, starting with the truck that happened to be passing on the highway above, eviscerating the unfortunate driver, and then fired into the houses.  How many Iraqis had the troops killed and wounded?  The more the better, as far as insurgent leaders were concerned.  “The point is to get the Americans to fire back,” the commanding general of the 82nd Airborne told me the next day, “and hopefully the bad guys’ll get some Iraqi casualties out that that and they can publicize that.”  By week’s end scores of family and close friends of those killed and wounded would join the insurgents, for honor demanded they kill Americans to wipe away family shame.”  Mark Danner, Spiral:  Trapped in the Forever War (Simon & Schuster, 2016).


NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania — Mohamedou Ould Slahi is almost clinical as he recalls details of the torture he endured in the summer of 2003 at Guantánamo Bay. There were the guards who menaced him with attack dogs and beat him so badly they broke his ribs. The troops who shackled him, blasted him with heavy metal music and strobe lights or drenched him in ice water to deny him sleep for months on end. The mind-numbing isolation in a darkened cell without his Quran. The female guards who exposed themselves and touched him sexually in a bid to rattle his faith. But what left Mr. Slahi in utter despair, he said, was the interrogator who tried to threaten him into acknowledging that he was complicit in plotting a terrorist attack.  “If you don’t admit to it, we are going to kidnap your mother, rape her,” the interrogator said, by Mr. Slahi’s account. “I remember telling them: ‘This is unfair. This is not fair,’” Mr. Slahi recalled. The interrogator, he said, responded: “I’m not looking for justice. I’m looking to stop planes from hitting buildings in my country.” To which Mr. Slahi said he replied, “You need to get those people, not me.” Carol Rosenberg, “The Legacy of America’s Post-9/11 Turn to Torture,” New York Times, September 12, 2021


The Angel of History

Paul Klee, The Angel Novus, 1920,  Israel Museum Jerusalem; photo (c)  IMJ


Tragedy compounding tragedy, death compounding death.

A Taliban government in Afghanistan harboring jihadist training camps and Al-Qaeda’s most senior leader, Osama ben Laden.

People falling from the clear blue sky.  We watched them fall, against the cold steel backdrop of the towers, before the towers imploded and collapsed.  

Nearly three thousand men and women incinerated, crushed, burned alive, disintegrated, suffocated or broken upon hitting the ground.

The sites of the attack were in the United States, but the victims included citizens of more than 90 countries.  Legally and morally, these attacks were grave crimes against humanity.  

Trying to find a useful way to channel a sense of foreboding in the run up to war,  I organized an event at Stanford Law School (I was the school’s Director of International Graduate Studies at the time)  bringing together a panel of international law scholars.  I spoke about the need to address the attacks according to the framework of international criminal law, rather than an occasion to seek revenge through military force.  I understood the need to take action to reduce the threat of further attacks byAl Qaeda, but I shared my concern that the Bush Administration might use this moment of national pain and mourning to invade Iraq and other countries beyond Afghanistan.  Everyone on the panel emphasized the necessity of adherence to international laws of war, and human rights, and humanitarian law, in whatever action the US might take — as international law scholars are wont to do. 

See also Stephen Zunes’s recent essay in Foreign Policy in Focus:

Many Americans Refused to Consider Why 9/11 Happened. The Costs Were Enormous.

But our national leaders had little or no interest in these kinds of concerns.  Nor did the leaders of Al-Qaeda, who hoped that the U.S. would regard the 9/11 attacks as acts of war requiring a massive military intervention in predominantly Muslim countries, resulting in huge numbers of civilian casualties.  They bet on US overreaction, anticipating that the spiral of killing they unleashed would generate ever larger numbers of victims throughout the Middle East — thus enabling Al-Qaeda to garner an endless supply of recruits to fuel global jihad, without regard to the human cost. 

“Lure the Americans into Afghanistan where they’ll sink into the quagmire that had trapped their superpower rival two decades before.  Such was Osama bin Laden’s strategy.  Could he have dared dream that the Americans would prove so cooperative as to invade Iraq as well?”  Mark Danner, Spiral:  Trapped in the Forever War (Simon & Schuster, 2016).

Tragically, the U.S. government fell into their trap.  

The wars started.  The Middle East, already highly volatile, descended further into chaos, civil war and bloodshed at the most horrific level since the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s.

Hundreds of thousands killed, men, women and children:  bombed, shot, exploded, burned, starved, assassinated, beheaded, tortured to death.

Late last month, desperate Afghans rushed to the tarmac at the Kabul airport in the closing days of the U.S. military evacuations, even as there was little or no hope of escape. Zaki Anwari, a 17-year old member of Afghanistan national youth soccer team, joined others who climbed up on the fuselage of a U.S. military plane, holding on with dear life as the plane ascended into the sky, until they could hold on no longer.  

In the video, Anwari is just a small black dot, falling from a great height, as the plane ascends into the blue sky.

Today, a resurgent Taliban government again controls Afghanistan, following the U.S. and NATO defeat, and withdrawal.  Thousands of Afghans who are eligible for protected status as refugees in the United States remain stranded, extremely vulnerable to recrimination and punishment under Taliban rule.   

Afghanistan has again become a safe harbor for Islamist militants, including Al-Qaeda’s most senior leader, Ayman al-Zawahri.

According to the UN Refugee Agency, more than half a million Afghans were forced to flee their homes during the past year alone, bringing the total number of displaced people within Afghanistan to 3.5 million.  

After twenty years, and untold expenditures of blood and treasure, immeasurable losses of human life and violations of human dignity, what did we achieve?  

It is hard not to about Walter Benjamin’s vision of the Paul Klee monoprint The Angelus Novus, from Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History, written in 1942, at the outset of the Holocaust, and the darkness of Hitler’s ascendance in Europe:

“A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.” 


My city of ruins

Fire fighters carrying water hose through rubble September 11th following terrorist attack on World Trade Center, New York City] Picryl, unattributed photo


The 757s, the 767s, the Twin Towers, the Pentagon — achievements of technological mastery, harnessing steel to overcome gravity.  A small group of determined jihadists, trained by many others who sent them to kill and die for Heaven’s rewards, turned this technology against itself, against human community.  Armed with boxcutters and the passionate intensity of which Yeat’s warned us in The Second Coming (1919).

On a bright, cloudless morning they revealed the immense fragility of what we had assumed was strong as steel, our vulnerability to foreign adversaries we did not understand, our dependence on the mercy of killers who had none.   The towers which had signified late 20th century American dominance over global finance and capital markets — but also the idea of world trade, and global interdependence — became a site of mass carnage, an explosion of anti-modern tribalism and indiscriminate carnage.   

We watched it happen, in person and on TV.  We witnessed unimaginable human courage, firefighters and first responders going back into the towers, over and over, to rescue whomever they could.  And we watched the towers themselves crushing into themselves and the people within.

2996 men and women were murdered.  Many thousands more died from injuries, cancers and other diseases caused by the attacks or the toxins to which people were exposed, and many thousands struggle with related illnesses today.  All of the Twin Towers casualties were civilians, including fire-fighters or other first responders. Indeed, the attacks deliberately targeted civilians, with the objective of murdering as many people as possible.

Survivors in Lower Manhattan experienced the horror directly.  They heard the deafening sounds of the planes crashing into the towers.  They watched gigantic plumes of black smoke pouring into the clear blue sky, and the raging fires in the South Tower.  They witnessed the collapse of the immense towers.  They ran into the buildings to save people in the final moments before so many were killed.  Their lungs filled with dense, toxic smoke and ashes.  Their bodies will  never forget the smell of burning fuel, flesh and hair.Everyone living in New York City experienced the heartbreak that followed, the signs everywhere with photos of missing family members. 

“My sister worked at Cantor Fitzgerald — have you seen her?” 

“My father worked at Windows on the World — have you seen him?” 

Desperate men and women gathering near the Ground Zero disaster site pleading with police and strangers for a miracle that never came.  Only death, with bodies intact or partial, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers incinerated into dust.

And everyone living in New York witnessed a once-in-a-lifetime moment of community, mutual aid, caregiving, generosity, and human connection. For a powerful and moving account of this brief experience of communal solidarity, see Chapter IV (“The City Transfigured:  New York in Grief and Glory”) in Rebecca Solnit’s remarkable A Paradise Built in Hell:  The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster (Viking, 2009), 

Collective memory, filtered through images, globalism and nationalism

The concept of “collective memory” was developed a century ago by the French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs  Intellectually, the concept builds on Emile Durkheim’s idea of “collective consciousness.” Emotionally, the idea of “collective memory” is for Halbwachs deeply associated with the experience of communal trauma, specifically the trauma of generational mass murder in the trenches of World War I; Halbwachs himself was murdered at Buchenwald in 1945.).

For everyone alive today (especially those who were not living in Manhattan on September 11, 2011, and who did not lose family members in the attack, and including everyone who was a child at the time, or who was born after), our personal memories and associations related to 9/11 are inseparable from what Halbwachs called “the frameworks of collective memory.” In turn, these frameworks are infused by images — TV footage of the collapsing buildings, iconic photographs of the carnage — images that saturated the media and our minds, on 9/11 and for days and weeks later, across all political boundaries and borders. 

And among these iconic images, among the most haunting and disturbing is Richard Drew’s serial photographs of the unidentified “Falling Man.”

But these images do not exist in isolation from narratives shaped by others.  On the contrary, they are filtered by the media and framed by direct and indirect messages by political and cultural authorities.  These narratives are national.  They also transcend national boundaries.  

At the time I was teaching international graduate students at Stanford Law School.  We organized an assembly a few days after the attack.  One of my students, a Russian lawyer named Innokenty Alekseev was chosen by the entire cohort of international students at the law school to speak on their behalf.  Addressing an overflow audience of students, faculty and staff representing the entire law school community, Innokenty said:  “I am an American today.  Everyone in my country feels this way.”

You could feel the outpouring of grief, mourning, compassion, brotherhood and sisterhood that transcended all borders and boundaries.  At least for the brief, immediate aftermath of the attacks.  

In this context, I felt very mixed about the American flags that appeared everywhere. 

On the one hand, I welcomed the national unity those flags represented, the desire to overcome partisan and regional differences and come together across all divisions in our country, to support each other, to grieve for those who died, to support the survivors, and the victims’ families, and to protect all communities throughout America.  I also understood the need to take action to defend against further terrorist attacks on human life.  

On the other hand, I feared the rising heat of nationalism, looking for its release in military action.  Flags displayed are promptly waved. 

I dreamed of designing a beautiful image of planet earth and making a hundred thousand flags to symbolize our unified humanity on our fragile, broken world. 

But there were no earth flags, only Old Glory. 

The response USA, USA to the call to human connection arising from the ashes of the towers, and the immense collective grief, suggested a kind of national fever, evoking a deeper sickness in our national identity, and evoking a terrible dread.  

Where was all of this leading us?

A highly recognized international security expert at Stanford, with experience at the highest levels of national security decision-making, said in a lecture that the US President, whoever he or she might be, had, in effect, no choice.  If Bush didn’t go to war, this expert said, he would face a successful impeachment trial.  It was a matter of psychology and domestic politics, he explained:  blood had been shed on American soil, our homeland was attacked, people felt violated and vulnerable; in response, they expected a powerful and overwhelming show of force.  They wanted to regain a sense of control at a time when horrible events were spinning out of control, he said.  They wanted to experience the decisive action of leadership and military action — at a time when our leaders had ignored the plentiful evidence and did nothing to prevent the 9/11 atrocities from taking place.  

I remember feeling disturbed by this analysis.  None of these reasons, however understandable, were good.  On the contrary, these were terrible reasons to unleash the dogs of war:  without clear, measurable and achievable outcomes or goals; and oblivious to the broad array of harmful consequences that were likely to flow, intended or unintended, along with the blood of people far away.  Nevertheless, this expert understood more about the reality of domestic politics than I did.  After all, in the immediate run up to war after 9/11, President George W. Bush enjoyed nearly 88% approval ratings — likely a greater level of public support than any President since Franklin D. Roosevelt, and a level of bipartisan approval that has not been remotely approached since.

Where were we going?  We were going to war.  


September 14, 2001

Pentagon, Washington D.C. (Nov. 24, 2003) Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld applauds President George W. Bush during his remarks at the Pentagon.  Department of Defense photo by Helene C. Stikkel; Picryl, public domain.


The decision to go to war was not inevitable.  It was not baked into the 9/11 attacks, even if the national security scholar was correct about the national thirst for vengeance.

If the goal was to reduce the number of jihadists in the world, and the threat of terrorism they represented, a courageous national leadership could have taken another, better path.  They chose not to do so.

The 9/14 National service of prayer and remembrance

The national prayer service at the Washington Cathedral told us where we were going spiritually as a nation, and where we are today.

Rev. Nathan Baxter, dean of the cathedral, delivered the opening invocation to an overflow crowd of Senators and Congress members, cabinet members and grieving citizens.  “Let us also pray for divine wisdom as our leaders consider the necessary actions for national security,” Rev. Baxter concluded, “wisdom of the grace of God, that as we act we not become the evil we deplore.”

Rev. Baxter’s prescient appeal to moral caution, to the corrosive if not fatal danger of hubris, and the need for prudence and discernment before taking action, was unheeded by the clergy and national leaders who followed.  Rather, the service immediately took a different, martial turn, toward righteous anger, divine justice and the grapes of wrath.   

The Rev. Billy Graham prayed.

“Some day those responsible will be brought to justice, as President Bush and our Congress have so forcefully stated.  But today we especially come together in this service to confess our need of God. We’ve always needed God from the very beginning of this nation but today we need Him especially. We’re facing a new kind of enemy. We’re involved in a new kind of warfare and we need the help of the Spirit of God.”

President George W. Bush told the cathedral audience, and all Americans: 

“Our responsibility to history is already clear, to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil…. This nation is peaceful, but fierce when stirred to anger. This conflict was begun on the timing and terms of others. It will end in a way, and at an hour, of our choosing.”

The service concluded with President Bush and the rest of the congregation singing “The Battle Hymn of The Republic.”

“I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnish’d rows of steel

As ye deal with my condemners so with you my grace shall deal

Let the hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel

His truth is marching on…

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the lord.

He is trapling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored. 

He have loosed the fateful lightening of his terrible swift sword. 

His truth is marching on.”

The 9/14 Emergency Declaration

National emergency declarations by the US President have a legitimate purpose:  to enable the Executive to take emergency action, without the normal legal constraints, in order to protect national security and the wellbeing of our people when legislative and administrative actions cannot effectively rectify the immediate crisis within the urgent timeframe required.   

The idea that “the Constitution is not a suicide pact” is widely accepted in our national culture.  But the concept of “emergency” is by definition exceptional and short term requiring a rapid, expeditious response.  The Cambridge English Dictionary, for example, defines emergency as “a dangerous or serious situation, such as an accident, that happens suddenly or unexpectedly and needs immediate action.”  We call 911 when our family member is having a heart attack, or stroke or other life-threatening emergency, and our society allows the ambulance to run through the red lights that vehicles must otherwise obey.  A ship captain taps out S-O-S in morse code to signal that his vessel is sinking, threatening the lives and cargo aboard.  The boy who cried wolf discovered that the declaration of an emergency must be reserved for the true moment of crisis, otherwise it is ignored, to the great peril of everyone in the community.

In contrast to these examples, the 9/14/01 emergency declaration has remained in effect for twenty years, renewed in each year by President George W. Bush — and by each subsequent President:  Obama, Trump and, most recently Biden. 

In retrospect, President Bush’s September 14, 2001 national emergency declaration ushered the United States into what has become a perpetual, “state of emergency” in which the supposed “normal” legal constraints (e.g. not running through red lights) on the power of the Executive, and his or her agents, are indefinitely, if not permanently, suspended.  

(I would support a long term emergency declaration to address the long term emergency facing our planet by the reality of catastrophic climate change.  But the 9/14/01 emergency declaration is entirely different, as it in effect declared the 9/11 terrorist attacks as an act of war against the United States requiring a wartime legal framework for addressing national security, unencumbered by normal constraints on executive power, war without end.)

President Bush frequently spoke about the “War on Terror.”  But this was not an official term.  The original military code name for the post 9/11 wars was “Operation Infinite Justice.”  Infinite, first meaning:  Without limits; extremely large or great, Cambridge English Dictionary. “Related words and phrases” include:  bottomless, bottomless pit, boundless, endless, fathomless, immeasurable, inexhaustible, unbounded, unconfined, unlimited.  Second meaning:  God.

“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8).

But President Bush had cold feet about the name.   According to the New York Times,  “Islamic scholars complained that only God was capable of dispensing infinite justice, and administration officials worried that allies in the Middle East would take offense.”

The US-led “Global War on Terrorism” was henceforth called  Operation Enduring Freedom.

Enduring, like the 9/14/01 Emergency Declaration, and the 9/14/01 AUMF.

The September 14, 2001 AUMF 

Twenty years ago today, on September 14, 2001,  the United States Congress voted to empower President George W. Bush and his successors to use “necessary and appropriate” military force abroad,  without further consent by Congress, or any temporal or spacial limitations,  “against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that  occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”  

On its face, the AUMF limited the use of force to attacks with some connection to the 9/11 Al Qaeda attacks.  However, an assertion by the President of such a connection is all that it takes to initiate military action.  Force must be “necessary and appropriate,” but these limitations are meaningless, because it is sufficient for a President to recite those words, or say nothing at all.  What “nations, organizations or persons” will be designated targets?  Again, Congress abdicated its authority to limit the President’s power to choose whatever such targets he might wish.  There is no pretense of accountability, no check on the President’s discretion.

The clause “or harbored such organizations or persons” clearly referred to the Taliban government in Afghanistan, but the clause was used to maintain U.S. military occupation and intervention in that country for more than 19 years after the Taliban government fell.  

And what would happen if President Bush, or a subsequent U.S. President, initiated military force on a target of his or her choosing that had no connection to Al Qaeda, or the 9/11 attacks, at all — while asserting legal authority under the September 14, 2001 AUMF?  No such authority could be asserted in good faith, could it?  The AUMF text makes it plain that there must be a nexus to “the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.”  

And each Administration has interpreted the 2001 AUMF to authorize attacks against “associated forces” of terrorists involved in the 9/11 attacks, even though this term is clearly not included in the text, and each has applied this interpretation to militant jihadi organizations (such as ) that did not exist on September 11, 2001.  

Today, twenty years after 9/11, the September 14, 2001 AUMF remains in place.  It still operates, as federal law, offering blanket authority to the President in office to pursue military force against targets throughout the world.   Indeed, every President since Bush — Obama, Trump and now Biden — has taken military action (especially, during President Obama’s tenure, drone strikes) on the basis of a claim to legal authority bestowed on the President by the 2001 AUMF.  


Aftermath: a world more broken


Najaf, Iraq (Apr. 08, 2003) Jubilant Iraqis cheer U.S. Army Soldiers at a humanitarian aid compound in the city of Najaf.  U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 1st Class Arlo K. Abrahamson; Picryl, public domain.

Following the 9/14/01 Declaration of National Emergency by President Bush, and Congressional enactment of the 9/14/01 AUMF, the MIddle East began its spiraling descent into the most horrific period of communal violence since the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s.  

Wars spread like a pandemic throughout the region, each a uniquely configured power struggle between jihadi militants, tribal militias, Sunni-Shia hatred, local disputes, and U.S. superpower hubris and overkill.  Still, these wars had much in common.  They exploded latent conflicts into full scale blood feuds; they led to bloodbaths, massacres, firefights and routine killings  in which civilian families paid the greatest price; and they generated massive human displacement and hunger in each country.  

In Syria, a ghastly war was waged against civilians by the savage alliance between President Bashar Hafez al-Assad and Russian military forces, including unspeakable torture in Assad’s secret prisons, the aireal bombardment of civilian neighborhoods by Russian aircraft and projectiles, and the use by Assad’s forces of chemical weapons against villages in areas controlled by opposition forces, intersected with the rise of a nihilistic death cult draped in pathological forms of milennial Islamic ideology controlled vast territories until crushed by U.S. supported Kurdish forces.  

In Afghanistan and Iraq, US-supported warlords, politicians and militias competed for access to infusions of dollars from official and unofficial channels, military officers and contractors, intensifying local systems of petty corruption into kleptocracies sustained by bribery, fraud and extortion by tribal patriarchs, local warlords, political entrepreneurs, agents and operatives, profiteers, strongmen, gangsters and thugs.  

In Afghanistan, Improvement in the lives of people in Kabul and Kandahar, and a dramatic expansion of education and legal rights for women, were built on a fragile foundation of systemic corruption in the cities, and relentless war and displacement in the countryside, in which American soldiers and contractors represented imperialism, foreign occupation, and excessive use of force.

In Libya, understandable U.S. concern to prevent impending massacre led to an intervention that, deliberately or inadvertently, smashed the remnants of the Gaddafi regime, breaking the country apart into fiefdoms and chaos.  In Yemen, Saudi intervention against a Houthi rebellion, including wholesale bombing of civilian populations, created perhaps the most grave humanitarian catastrophe in the region, a catastrophe shamefully exacerbated by U.S. military support for indiscriminate Saudi air strikes.  

Meanwhile, according to the Congressional Research Service, the 2001 AUMF has been used to justify US military action at least 41 times in 19 countries:  Afghanistan, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Cuba, Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Kenya, Libya, Kosovo, Niger, Syria, Somalia, South Sudan, Turkey, Uganda, and Yemen.  In addition, the Bush Administration claimed legal authority under the 2001 AUMF for the massive “dark” war it launched through CIA agents, associated paramilitaries, contractors and subcontractors, and agents of the militaries Joint Special Operations Command “to rid the world of evil” through targeted assassinations, extrajudicial killings, and “extraordinary rendition” (“the government-sponsored abduction and extrajudicial transfer of a person from one country to another with the purpose of circumventing the former country’s laws on interrogation, detention, extradition and/or torture,” Wikipedia)

Under cover of the 2001 AUMF, the Bush Administration brought captured detainees to the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; it established a secret gulag archipelago of “black site” prisons in Eastern Europe, Asia, North Africa and other locations that have never been identified; and it authorized the conduct of “enhanced interrogations,” including waterboarding and other forms of torture prohibited under U.S. and international law, in each of these sites.  

The Costs of War Project is a research initiative at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University investigating the human and financial costs of the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the related violence in Pakistan and Syria.  With a team of over 50 scholars, legal experts, human rights practitioners, and physicians, the project publishes data and analysis on the Watson Institute website.

Some of their key findings are set out below:

  • At least 801,000 people have died due to direct war violence, including armed forces on all sides of the conflicts, contractors, civilians, journalists, and humanitarian workers. Many times more have died indirectly in these wars, due to ripple effects like malnutrition, damaged infrastructure, and environmental degradation.Over387,000 civilians have been killed in direct violence by all parties to these conflicts.
  • Over7,050 U.S. soldiers have died in the wars.  We do not know the full extent of how many US service members returning from these wars becameinjured or ill while deployed.  Many deaths and injuries among US contractors have not been reported as required by law, but it is likely that approximately8,000 have been killed.   Over 30,000 Post-9/11 soldiers committed suicide in Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries or following their return to the U.S.  Countless veterans suffer from PTSD.
  • 38 million people have been displaced by the post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and the Philippines.
  • The US government is conducting counter-terror activities in 85 countries, vastly expanding this war across the globe.
  • The post-9/11 wars have contributed significantly to climate change. The Defense Department is one of the world’s top greenhouse gas emitters.
  • The cost of the post-9/11 wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, and elsewhere totals about$8 trillion. This does not include future interest costs on borrowing for the wars. The human and economic costs of these wars will continue for decades with some costs, such as the financial costs ofUS veterans’ care, not peaking until mid-century.  The ripple effects on the US economy have also been significant, including job loss and interest rate increases.
  • Most US government funding of reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan has gone towards arming security forces in both countries. Much of the money allocated to humanitarian relief and rebuilding civil society has been lost to fraud, waste, and abuse.
  • Compelling alternatives to war were scarcely considered in the aftermath of 9/11 or in the discussion about war against Iraq.


Honoring Barbara Lee

barbara lee

Rep. Barbara Lee on the Floor of the House, 9/24/01; Photo, screen grab, The Guardian.


U.S. Representative Barbara Lee, from Oakland, California, had joined fellow Representatives and Senators in prayer and reflection at the National Cathedral service in the morning of September 14, 2001.  Like every other Member of Congress, Lee knew that she would be required to vote that afternoon on the The Authorization for Use of Military Force Act of 2001 (AUMF) that President Bush had submitted to Congress.  

Lee was deeply concerned that this authorization was dangerously open-ended, that in effect it afforded a blank check to President Bush to attack anyone, anywhere, in any country, he determined was involved in the 9/11 attacks, without regard to the foreign policy and security interests of the United States, at any time in the future without limit.  She feared the consequences of virtually unlimited war-making powers to the President without accountability to Congress or the American people. 

As she later explained, “A rush to launch precipitous military counterattacks runs too great a risk that more innocent men, women, children will be killed.”  

But Lee did not make her final decision until she attended the National Cathedral service that morning.  Rev. Baxter’s haunting words had made the difference.

Barbara Lee was the only Member of Congress, in either chamber, to oppose the 9/11 war powers authorization. 

Here is the text of Rep. Barbara Lee’s extraordinarily prescient and courageous words on the floor of the House that day:

“Mr. Speaker, I rise today with a heavy heart, one that is filled with sorrow for the families and loved ones who were killed and injured in New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Only the most foolish or the most callous would not understand the grief that has gripped the American people and millions around the world.

This unspeakable attack on the United States has forced me to rely on my moral compass, my conscience, and my God for direction.

September 11 changed the world. Our deepest fears now haunt us. Yet I am convinced that military action will not prevent further acts of international terrorism against the United States.

I know that this use-of -force resolution will pass although we all know that the President can wage war even without this resolution. However difficult this vote may be, some of us must urge the use of restraint. There must be some of us who say, let’s step back for a moment and think through the implications of our actions today-let us more fully understand their consequences.

We are not dealing with a conventional war. We cannot respond in a conventional manner. I do not want to see this spiral out of control. This crisis involves issues of national security, foreign policy, public safety, intelligence gathering, economics, and murder. Our response must be equally multifaceted.

We must not rush to judgment. Far too many innocent people have already died. Our country is in mourning. If we rush to launch a counterattack, we run too great a risk that woman, children, and other non-combatants will be caught in the crossfire.

Nor can we let our justified anger over these outrageous acts by vicious murderers inflame prejudice against all Arab Americans, Muslim, Southeast Asians, and any other people because of their race, religion, or ethnicity.

Finally, we must be careful not to embark on an open-ended war with neither an exit strategy nor a focused target. We cannot repeat past mistakes.

In 1964, Congress gave President Lyndon Johnson the power to “take all necessary measures” to repel attacks and prevent further aggression. In so doing, this House abandoned its own constitutional responsibilities and launched our country into years of undeclared war in Vietnam.

At this time, Senator Wayne Morse, one of the two lonely votes against the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, declared, “I believe that history will record that we have made a grave mistake in subverting and circumventing the Constitution of the United StatesŠI believe that with the next century, future generations will look with dismay and great disappointment upon a Congress which is now about to make such a historic mistake.”

Senator Morse was correct, and I fear we make the same mistake today. And I fear the consequences. I have agonized over this vote. But I came to grips with it in the very painful yet beautiful memorial service today at the National Cathedral. As a member of the clergy so eloquently said, ” As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore.”

There is no solace in being proved right, in being the only legislator of either party who understood the reality of what the AUMF would unleash. 

Barbara Lee was vilified for her vote.   She was called a traitor, an anti-American, a communist.  She received multiple death threats and required round-the-clock police protection. 

In retrospect, her story represents a “profile in courage” equal to or greater than any of the figures hailed in John F. Kennedy’s famous book about the moral power of the greatest figures in the history of the U.S. Congress.



An Afghan Air Force medical technician prepares, Picrl, public domain.


On September 14, 2001, at the National Cathedral, President Bush said:  “This conflict was begun on the timing and terms of others.  It will end in a way, and at an hour, of our choosing.”

The war in Afghanistan did indeed end “at an hour of our choosing.”  

President Donald Trump negotiated an agreement with the Taliban, excluding the Afghan government, fixing a date certain for the removal of all U.S. troops by May 1, 2021, and President Joe Biden extended that day to August 31, 2021, a date that followed the seizure of all major cities by Taliban forces, the total defeat of the Afghan Army, and the restoration of Taliban rule in Kabul and across the country.

“It was in the waning days of November 2001 that Taliban leaders began to reach out to Hamid Karzai, who would soon become the interim president of Afghanistan: They wanted to make a deal. ‘The Taliban were completely defeated, they had no demands, except amnesty,’ recalled Barnett Rubin, who worked with the United Nations’ political team in Afghanistan at the time….But Washington, confident that the Taliban would be wiped out forever, was in no mood for a deal. ‘The United States is not inclined to negotiate surrenders,’ Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said in a news conference at the time… Almost 20 years later, the United States did negotiate a deal to end the Afghan war, but the balance of power was entirely different by then — it favored the Taliban… “One mistake was that we turned down the Taliban’s attempt to negotiate,” Carter Malkasian, a former senior adviser to Gen. Joseph Dunford, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during parts of the Obama and Trump administrations, said of the American decision not to discuss a Taliban surrender nearly 20 years ago.  “We were hugely overconfident in 2001, and we thought the Taliban had gone away and weren’t going to come back,” he said. “We also wanted revenge, and so we made a lot of mistakes that we shouldn’t have made.”  ‘When I heard the U.S. were going to meet in Doha with the Taliban and without the Afghan government [in 2019 and early 2020],I said, ‘That’s not a peace negotiation, those are surrender talks,’ said Ryan Crocker, a former ambassador to Afghanistan. ‘So, now the talks were all about us retreating without the Taliban shooting at us as we went,’  Mr. Crocker added, ‘and we got nothing in return.’”

Alissa J. Rubin, “Did the War in Afghanistan Have to Happen?,” New York Times, Aug. 23, 2021

No, it didn’t have to be this way.

Jonathan Greenberg

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Jonathan Greenberg