top of page

Oral history of 9’11 author: “After 9/11, the U.S. Got Almost Everything Wrong”


For a few days, we were united. Then what went wrong?


… we never “rid the world of evil. Worse than ever


For a few moments after the attacks on America in September 2001, America was on the verge of unity, a commitment to build a better country and recover from the horrible events.

However, instead of ridding the world of evil as the then president promised, the U.S. lacked the leadership to keep us together.


Consequently, the country is more divided today then it has at any time since the Civil War. Instead of uniting us, 9/11 was the start of horrible divisions that today threaten our democracy.


“We succumbed to fear”


Garrett Graff is an author and historian who has compiled an oral history of 9/11. He has interviewed many of the key players at that time on many levels. What he has learned is that the U.S. made huge errors after 9/11 that are still haunting us,


As we approach the 20th anniversary of 9/11 on Saturday, I cannot escape this sad conclusion: The United States—as both a government and a nation—got nearly everything about our response wrong, on the big issues and the little ones. The GWOT yielded two crucial triumphs: The core al-Qaeda group never again attacked the American homeland, and bin Laden, its leader, was hunted down and killed in a stunningly successful secret mission a decade after the attacks. But the U.S. defined its goals far more expansively, and by almost any other measure, the War on Terror has weakened the nation—leaving Americans more afraid, less free, more morally compromised, and more alone in the world. A day that initially created an unparalleled sense of unity among Americans has become the backdrop for ever-widening political polarization.


The nation’s failures began in the first hours of the attacks and continue to the present day. Seeing how and when we went wrong is easy in hindsight. What’s much harder to understand is how—if at all—we can make things right.


Garrett M. Graff, “After 9/11, the U.S. got almost everything

wrong,” The Atlantic, September 2021

The first mistake was succumbing to fear. The country decided to walk on the dark side, and that, Graff says, was a colossal miscalculation.


Initial reaction was understandable


As Graff says, when your country is attacked, the natural reaction is fear,


The initial fear seemed well grounded. Experts warned of a potential second wave of attacks and of al-Qaeda sleeper cells across the country. Within weeks, mysterious envelopes of anthrax powder began sickening and killing people in Florida, New York, and Washington. Entire congressional office buildings were sealed off by government officials in hazmat suits.


The world suddenly looked scary to ordinary citizens—and even worse behind the closed doors of intelligence briefings. The careful sifting of intelligence that our nation’s leaders rely on to make decisions fell apart. After the critique that federal law enforcement and spy agencies had “failed to connect the dots” took hold, everyone shared everything—every tip seemed to be treated as fact.

Garrett Graff, The Atlantic, September 2021


Instead of developing a coherent strategy, the U.S. became lawbreakers, and that was the start of a devolution into anarchy in a legal sense.


The initial fear seemed well grounded. Experts warned of a potential second wave of attacks and of al-Qaeda sleeper cells across the country. Within weeks, mysterious envelopes of anthrax powder began sickening and killing people in Florida, New York, and Washington. Entire congressional office buildings were sealed off by government officials in hazmat suits.


The world suddenly looked scary to ordinary citizens—and even worse behind the closed doors of intelligence briefings. The careful sifting of intelligence that our nation’s leaders rely on to make decisions fell apart. After the critique that federal law enforcement and spy agencies had “failed to connect the dots” took hold, everyone shared everything—every tip seemed to be treated as fact.


Garrett Graff, The Atlantic, September 2021


Torture lowered us to their level


Before 9/11 the U.S. stood for something that was positive, that was admired throughout the world. After Afghanistan and Iraq, our reputation in the world dissipated to the point where under Donald Trump, we were despised.


First, we tortured people, something that was a violation of international law,


Twenty years after 9/11, it’s unclear whether a single meaningful piece of intelligence came out of the torture program, which a U.S. Senate investigation later determined was deployed against dozens of detainees in CIA custody. We tortured CIA detainees and “enemy combatants” in Gitmo whether they seemed useful or not. Similar abuses occurred in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, where guards sexually abused and humiliated prisoners. The moral stain from this era was so obvious that al-Qaeda in Iraq, the group that morphed into the brutal ISIS, later used the imagery against us—parading its own prisoners around in the orange jumpsuits from Gitmo.

And yet American leaders continued to embrace the approach anyway. Mitt Romney ran for president promising to “double Guantánamo.” And no senior official, in either the military or the CIA, has ever been held accountable for the deaths, degradations, and abuses inflicted in our name. Quite the opposite: President Donald Trump even promoted Gina Haspel, who had overseen a black site in Thailand, to director of the CIA.

Garrett M. Graff, The Atlantic, September 2021


Coronavirus killed many more, yet the fight is not there


Graff concludes with this,


Ironically, we find ourselves in another fight against a shadowy, shape-shifting foe. The coronavirus has killed the equivalent of the 9/11 death toll every three days for the past 18 months. The total death toll surpasses the entire population of Wyoming. At least one part of the U.S. government’s response has been exemplary: Innovative and effective disease-defeating vaccines have been developed, approved, and administered to the majority of American adults for free at a truly impressive speed. Yet rather than pulling us together, the COVID-19 crisis has pushed Americans even further apart. Historians someday will study this moment and wonder how our society was so fragmented as to fumble a crisis that, in technical terms, we were well equipped to handle.


The answer, unfortunately, will be simple: We are confronting the current crisis with little of the hope, goodwill, and unity that 9/11 initially created, and that reality is inseparable from the fear and suspicion that came to dominate America’s reaction to the 2001 attacks—and yielded a long succession of tragic consequences, cynical choices, and poisonous politics. Looking back after two decades, I can’t escape the conclusion that the enemy we ended up fighting after 9/11 was ourselves.


The list of what we did wrong


You have to read the entire Graff essay to understand what he said. Here is a list,

  • At home, we reorganized the government the wrong way.

  • Abroad, we squandered the world’s goodwill.

  • We picked the wrong enemies


https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/09/after-911-everything-wrong-war-terror/620008/




9 views
bottom of page