There is no good way to commemorate the anniversary of a national tragedy on the scale of 9/11. Yet it does provide the opportunity to reflect upon what have been learned since then. So what are the lessons of the past dozen years and what does it tell us about our future direction?
First, we now know that the fight against terrorism has no time horizon. Today, Bin Laden is dead and Al Qaeda poses a weaker threat to the United States. Yet terrorist groups related to Al Qaeda are still active in many failed states across Africa and the Middle East. American action against them resembles the fight against the Lernaean Hydra: Initiatives against one group seem to cultivate the appearance of several more.
Second, and possibly even more disturbing, is the resilience of the threat posed by “homegrown terrorists,” those self-radicalized individuals apparently well integrated who are difficult to identify and track. Efforts to counteract their activities raise an age-old problem: reconciling civil liberties with the need to protect the homeland. As the recent revelations about NSA activities demonstrate, increased surveillance of “them” now includes intrusions on our privacy. As we lurch back and forth, Americans are having a difficult time balancing these twin concerns.
A third point is that we now know that immigration forms far less of a security threat than policymakers contend. In the aftermath of 9/11, both Democrats and Republicans were keen to pass legislation that they thought would “secure America’s borders.” The Patriot Act and the Real ID Act contained key provisions intended to stem the flow of terrorists, even if none of the assailants that day were in fact immigrants. Certainly, this legislation has had a major impact on the lives of illegal immigrants and their children, with record numbers being deported under the aegis of antiterrorism legislation. But the targets have overwhelmingly been Latin American migrants seeking freedom and a better life in the US. To date, however, this legislation has proven ineffective in catching terrorists.
Finally, one of the consistent foundations of American foreign policy since 1945 has been democracy promotion. The wave of new democracies in Eastern Europe in the 1980s encouraged our policymakers to believe that we could create democracies in the Middle East. Yet events since 9/11 have confirmed that democracy is not easy to export to the Middle East, North Africa, or the Caucuses, either through a unilateral use of force (as was the case in Iraq), through multilateral intervention (such as in Afghanistan), or through generous foreign aid (in Egypt). Recent efforts to create democracies in the Middle East — the Arab spring — provide a sobering lesson about the limitations of American power when it comes to efforts at political and social engineering.
The good news is that the threat of mutual nuclear annihilation has receded. And 9/11 demonstrated how an admirable sense of community and solidarity remain preeminent in the United States in the face of crisis — truly an example of “American exceptionalism.” But the United States is in a process of transition in a world that has become increasingly unsure and insecure since 9/11. Like his predecessor, President Obama shares a commitment to using American power to enhance global stability and prosperity — as the current initiative against Syria illustrates. But as the terrible events of 9/11 and its aftermath have amply demonstrated, we live in a world where American power neither ensures our safety nor accords us the status of global leadership to which our policymakers aspire.