The arrival of the decennial observation of the attacks of September 11, 2001 — at least in the northeastern portion of the country — is marked by at least as much of a literal cloud hanging over us as a figurative one. I am certain that my musings on where we stand as a nation are, in part, clouded by recent natural disasters and the reminder that fate, in the hands of Mother Nature, can leave us feeling lost, damp, and alone in much the same way that mad bombers and plane crashers can.
Still, it’s tempting to polish the apple and chalk one up in the victory column. Tens years after the towers came down, Osama bin Laden, along with many of his top cohorts, is dead. The Taliban, who sought to shield him, is ousted from power and most of their strongholds lie in ruins. The total number of al-Qaeda remaining in Afghanistan is frequently quoted as being down to double digits. Is this not victory?
There’s a reason that it might not feel this way for some of us. The damage didn’t all take place on that one September day — it rolled on for years, draining us of stamina while a new generation came of age knowing nothing but a post-9/11 world.
When England’s King Henry VIII was a young man, he suffered a wound to his leg which was later re-opened and aggravated in a jousting accident in his forties. While he lived an additional eleven years and eventually prevailed over his enemies, owing to the lack of any modern medical knowledge, the injury plagued him to the end of his days. It not only led to other maladies which likely contributed to his early demise, but weakened him in the eyes of his domestic rivals.
I bring up Henry only because his jousting opponent, in some ways, reminds me of bin Laden. He didn’t defeat the United States in any way, shape, or form. But he most assuredly wounded us.
Perhaps things might have played out much differently had we somehow struck back with a decisive knock-out blow. We started out with more than enough exuberance, ready to take on the villains and band together as a nation. Everyone was flying Old Glory and spoiling for a fight. While discussing this subject recently, my wife reminded me of a shopping trip she took a few days after the attacks. She found herself at a stop light in a line of roughly a half dozen cars. Hers was the only one without an American flag on it and she recalls feeling somewhat out of place.
It’s not that we were part of some anti-flag contingent. We had ours flying at home along with the rest of the block. We’d simply not thought to pick up one suitable for display on an automobile antenna. But the point was that everyone was primed for battle and, more importantly, expecting a victory. But that victory failed to materialize.
I can’t help but wonder what the world would look like today if we had killed — or even better, captured — bin Laden at Tora Bora in December of 2001. What if we had wrung out of him the names and locations of all his top associates and staged them at Gitmo for daily frog walks before the cameras in orange jump suits and leg irons? It would have sent a powerful message to the rest of the world and, more importantly, to ourselves that America was not to be messed with. That our power was beyond question and any attempt to knock us down would be met with swift and harsh retribution.
But that never happened. Even with their erstwhile “headquarters” in Afghanistan lying in tatters, al-Qaeda metastasized into global pockets of angry antagonists who had been shown how they might score a victory. The most hunted criminal on the planet spent more than nine years flitting through the shadows like a ghost in the collective consciousness of the world. He had demonstrated that the giant was actually flesh and blood, not an invincible machine. If you cut us, we would indeed bleed.
So the wound remained. And it festered.