The Day The Bush War on Terror Began

by James M . Wall

President George Bush’s War on Terror began ten years ago, September 11, 2001.

Murderous crime scenes in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania, became spiritual staging grounds for an international war against what Time’s Tony Karon describes as “a tiny network of transnational extremists, founded on the remnants of the Arab volunteers who’d fought in the U.S.-backed Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union.”

It did not need to come to this.

The attacks on the US could have been a time to reinvent ourselves as a united people, bound together in our common grief.  But politicians, supported by a national media that was far more concerned with drama of what happened than why it happened, began to shape a different future, a worldwide attack on Islam.

Our crime scenes of death became shrines of memory designed not to mourn the dead, but to serve as spiritual support bases for the Bush War on Terror. The deaths of more than 3000 victims were exploited to create an evolving  narrative of  permanent international warfare.

Frank Rich wrote in New York magazine August 27, 2011:

The hallowed burial grounds of 9/11 were supposed to bequeath us a stronger nation, not a busted one. We were supposed to be left with a finer legacy than Gitmo and the Patriot Act. When we woke up on September 12, we imagined a whole host of civic virtues that might rise from the smoldering ruins.

Rich reminds us that Bush, a “still-green president” had a “near-perfect approval rating for weeks”. The nation was ready to build “a selfless wartime patriotism built on the awesome example of those regular Americans who ran to the rescue on that terrifying day of mass death, at the price of their own health and sometimes their lives”.

Instead we got “another hijacking—of 9/11 by those who exploited it for motives large and petty, both ideological and crassly ­commercial”.

The most lethal of these hijackings was the Bush administration’s repurposing of 9/11 for a war against a country that had not attacked us. So devilishly clever was the selling of the Saddam-for-Osama bait-and-switch that almost half the country would come to believe that Iraqis were among the 9/11 hijackers.

Joseph E. Stiglitz, University Professor at Columbia University, wrote in a posting, The Price of 9/11: “President George W. Bush’s response to the attacks compromised America’s basic principles, undermined its economy, and weakened its security”.

Three years ago, when Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize winning economist, and a colleague, examined the costs of the Bush wars, their conservative tally was $3-5 trillion. Since then, he writes, the costs have mounted.

With almost 50% of returning troops eligible to receive some level of disability payment, and more than 600,000 treated so far in veterans’ medical facilities, we now estimate that future disability payments and health-care costs will total $600-900 billion. But the social costs, reflected in veteran suicides (which have topped 18 per day in recent years) and family breakups, are incalculable.

One glaring reason why the Bush-Cheney war machine could shape public opinion with such impunity in 2001 is that the main stream media had abandoned its journalistic responsibility to talk truth to power.

Looking back over my own 2001 files from those immediate post 911 months, I found a remarkable exception to that total media capitulation, a Newsweek essay published on November 18, 2001. The essay was written by David Gates under the headline, “The Voices Of Dissent”. The Daily Beast, Newsweek’s current online presence, has the essay on its site, here. Gates writes:

Since September 11, political dissent has seemed a decadent luxury, rather than a democratic necessity. The new united-we-stand orthodoxy holds that we’re all engaged in a war of unquestionable good against inexplicable evil–that, in fact, the attempt to understand the enemy’s perception of us is disloyal–and that bombing Afghanistan, approved by 90 percent of Americans, is both morally and practically justified.

These assumptions are worth questioning, if only for prudential reasons. But our official opposition party has signed on; so have most of the world’s leaders. And again, [few contemporary] writers get with the program.

Gates found, with some searching I imagine, John le Carre and Alan Gurganus, both of whom had written “to critique the war and the United States’ arrogance”

The most audible voices Gates identified, however, were those of Susan Sontag and Barbara Kingsolver, and the Indian novelist Arundhati Roy.

Sontag, the essayist and author of the National Book Award-winning In America: A Novel, drew a bizarrely fierce reaction for a 473-word New Yorker piece. She called the president “robotic” and added that the attacks were motivated by “specific American alliances and actions”.  Gates does not specify those allies and their actions, but ten years later it is possible to surmise she may have been alluding to Israel.

Gates writes further that since September 11, Kingsolver “has been pouring out editorials and essays”.

Her dissent, like Roy’s, is both moral and practical. “If our goal is to reduce the number of people in the world who would like to kill us,” she says, “this is not the way to go about it.” She resents having her patriotism impugned. “I’m speaking out because I’m a patriot,” she says.

“Because I love my country and I want it to do the right thing.” And she also resents being told–as she has been lately–that she should stick to writing novels. “It’s a nasty slap down that’s been used against those of us, particularly Arundhati Roy, who have spoken out,” Kingsolver says.

“As if the fact of our being novelists disqualified us for any other sort of speech. I can’t make any sense of that. Words are my tools. Words are what I have to offer.”

In that same 2001 file folder I found a column I wrote for the Christian Century‘s December 12, 2001, issue. It is available on the Century web site. Click here for the full column.

I quoted from the David Gates Newsweek essay, and added  these observations on how Bush’s War on Terror looked to me, and to many more Americans who were not being heard, in 2001.

Meanwhile, the president’s repeated insistence that the war against terror will last a long time indicates that he is listening to those who want him to extend the war to all nations that “harbor” what Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who has seen too many movies, likes to call the “bad guys.”

Rumsfeld’s deputy Paul Wolfowitz, White House officials Condolezza Rice, Karl Rowe and Karen Hughes, and chairman of the president’s Defense Policy Board, Richard Pearle, are urging Bush not to stop with Afghanistan.

New Yorker writer Peter J. Boyer reports that Newt Gingrich, a member the President’s Defense Policy Board, is urging the president to “confront Iraq even while the engagement in Afghanistan continues, and go after terrorist operations in Somalia and Sudan as well.”

I called my December 12, 2001 column, A Moral Squint: Bombs and Chaos. The column began:

After a particularly heavy U.S. bombardment of the city of Kunduz, al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters initially refused to surrender. Northern Alliance factions argued over how to arrange the surrender of Kunduz, provoking one U.S. official to describe the situation in and around the city as “chaotic.”

His word reminds me of an exchange in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons. Cardinal Thomas Wolsey demands that Thomas More support a papal dispensation so that King Henry VIII can legally divorce his queen, who has failed to produce a male heir.

When More refuses to intercede with the pope, the cardinal says, “You are a constant regret to me, Thomas. If you could just see facts flat on without that horrible, constant moral squint. With a little common sense you could have made a statesman.”

To which More replies: “I think that when statesmen forsake their own private consciences for the sake of their public duties they lead the country by a short route to chaos.”

Our nation needs the wisdom of  writers these days who possess a “moral squint” and don’t hesitate to write and speak about it.

The picture at the top was taken September 11, 2001 by Marty Lederhandler for the Associated Press.  It ran on Tony Karon’s Time blog on September 8, 2011. The Empire State Building is in the foreground; the burning twin towers are at  the right.

About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
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7 Responses to The Day The Bush War on Terror Began

  1. Bonnie Jones Shinneman says:

    Hi Jim: I led several work/study Volunteers in Mission Teams to Christian Palestinians in Beit Sahour (Shepherds Field and Bethlehem) in the Holy Land. I had seen and heard of the terrible abuse from the Israelis to the Palestinians. I knew in my heart that some time there would be retribution by the Arabs. People can stand only so much abuse and then they blow up. (“What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sand — or does it explode?” When I saw the planes hit the buildings, my first thought was, “Retaliation! They have exploded!” And weren’t the real reasons given soon after 9-11 that this was in retaliation for Israel’s occupation and murders of Palestinians?

  2. UmerSultan says:

    9/11 was the day when Islam was hijacked by two groups. One group hijacked it by wearing a cloak of Islam on their actions and the other group was ready to capitalize on the fear of the unknown. Both groups need each other to sustain, and both groups use the same rhetoric against each other, thus complementing each other. We cannot leave our world at the mercy of such groups.

    “Our nation needs the wisdom of writers these days who possess a “moral squint” and don’t hesitate to write and speak about it.”

    Indeed. Also what about President Obama who has not only continued this War on Terror that most of the people in this world believes it to be “War on Islam” but also the President has moved it into Pakistan.

  3. Awad Paul Sifri says:

    Thanks for your outstanding insights and analysis, Jim.
    On this deeply, deeply sad 10th Commemoration of 9/11, one’s heart goes out to the families of the 3,000 innocent lives that were so tragically snuffed for no rhyme or reason. Few of us can imagine what the families are going through every day of the year, for the past 10 years, so far.
    Those who have endured personal tragedies, or calamities perpetrated by other humans, may get close in understanding the depth of feelings involved.
    Our hearts and prayers are with them, and may God bless their souls.

  4. Robert H Stiver says:

    This is a wonderful, essential “ten years later” retrospective. America has lost any pretense at morality and righteousness as it has entangled itself with Israel into exclusivism and imperial-colonial-hegemonic hubris in the service of the racist ideology Zionism. I can’t forget two other Americans who, along the way, have added crucial, poignant context to our fall: Professor Ward Churchill and Reverend Jeremiah Wright, both of whom were pilloried and cashiered for speaking the truth.

  5. Frances Griffin says:

    Thanks to the author, to the authors that are quoted and to the first two commentators. You said it better than I can.

  6. jack graham says:

    Why heap all the blame on Bush? By large bi-partisan majorities, Congress authorized the invasions of Afghanistan and iraq under the War Powers Act of 1973 in keeping with the eleventh clause of Article I, Section 3 of the United States Constitution. If we are to blame Bush, we must also blame Congress, — and both parties, Democrats and Republicans alike. And then we must ask what we are blaming them for?

    We would have to blame them for lack of wisdom in understanding the implications of going to war. Both ventures were loaded with risk: They were more expensive, and involved greater casualties, than was foreseen. We overestimated our military prowess. There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, as we had been accurately advised by Hans Blix who had the best information on the subject. We had sound military and diplomatic alternatives.

    Public opinion in the United States at the time was about one third in favor, about one third against, and about one third wary or undecided, which was certainly not sufficient to generate a decision by our government to wage war. The drive for war cannot be attributed to popular hysteria. Why then did we as a nation plunge constitutionally but foolishly and needlessly into these wars abroad?

    Certainly, the Israel Lobby and their operatives mounted enormous pressure without which is it by no means clear that Congress would have passed war powers resolutions. They own and control Congress, as was evident from Bibi Netanyahu’s recent visit to Washington D. C. And Paul Findley was right in his assessment that, had the United States supported United Nations Resolutions 242 and 338 on settling the Six Days War in 1967, Osama bin Laden would never have been had the organization and support to engineer the fatal attack on 9/11 ten years ago today. The reason is the same as for the truth that, if the United States had firmly opposed the unjust and punitive treaty of Versailles in 1919, Hitler would have never risen to power in Germany. John Remington Graham of the Minnesota Bar (#3664)

  7. Sam Jones says:

    A tremendously insightful and painful reflection Jim – thank you for your words and memory. If only this were the type of critical thought that pervaded the mainstream media (or was at least given more than scant mention), so many lives could have been saved in the aftermath of 9/11.

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