The 9/11 attacks triggered a series of events that ended up killing, wounding and displacing hundreds of thousands, cost trillions of dollars, eroded civil liberties, diminished the US’s standing abroad and created a new generation of terrorists.
“I can hear you!” President George W. Bush declared, to cheers and ‘U-S-A’ chants, when he stood on the rubble of the World Trade Center three days after the attack. “The rest of the world hears you! And the people — and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”
It is often said that 9/11 “changed everything.” While that is certainly true for the families of the nearly 3,000 people who died that day, it was the response to the attacks that harmed — and ended — many more lives.
In Iraq, 4,504 American soldiers died and more than 30,000 were wounded in action.
Add to that hundreds of thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who returned home with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
And still, the toll on US troops is nothing compared to what the people of Afghanistan and Iraq had to endure.
In Afghanistan, an estimated 31,000 civilians have died as a result of the war. In Iraq, that number is more than five times higher. A minimum of 165,000 civilians have been killed, although the actual number may be much higher.
It should be noted that living in Afghanistan and Iraq prior to the US-led invasions was certainly no picnic. However, these civilian casualties are a direct consequence of the US decision to attack the two countries.
And because of the manner of attack, the tactics used in the “War on Terror” — torture, extraordinary rendition, the operation of “black site” prisons, and drone attacks on civilians — the standing of the United States abroad has been diminished.
Worse yet, these tactics have inspired increased jihadi recruitment.
In addition to the death and destruction in Iraq and Afghanistan, the wars have also led to a further destabilization of the region — increasing rather than eliminating acts of terrorism, and the threat of more terrorism.
The destabilization also led to the creation of ISIS, and the flood of millions of refugees into Europe and beyond.
Of course, the effects of the US response to 9/11 were not just felt abroad.
Just ask anybody who likes to bring a bottle of water on a plane. But beyond the obvious inconveniences imposed on air travelers in the name of safety are changes with far more serious consequences.
Most important is the erosion of civil liberties that the Bush administration and Congress pushed through after the attacks. The Patriot Act, which passed 98-1 in the Senate, made it much easier for the government to spy on innocent Americans. Provisions supposedly intended to fight foreign terrorists were quickly and predictably hijacked by domestic law enforcement agencies for all kinds of purposes. Some parts of the Patriot Act were eventually rolled back but not until after NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden disclosed the extent to which the government was keeping tabs on the communications of Americans.
In addition, police departments throughout the country received “surplus” military-grade weapons.
All of this came at a monetary price as well. According to some estimates, the two wars alone have cost nearly $3 trillion. Add to that the money spent on “homeland security” efforts, and it comes out to more than $10,000 spent per US citizen — and still counting.
On the anniversary of 9/11 it is important to keep all of these numbers in mind. Yes, the attacks on the World Trade Center changed everything. But at what point are we obligated to ask if too many lives have been lost, too much money has been spent, and too many rights have been trampled in pursuit of — exactly what?
The cartoon above was created by DonkeyHotey for WhoWhatWhy from these images: George Bush caricature (DonkeyHotey / Flickr – CC BY 2.0), Bush torso (SFC Thomas R. Roberts / Wikimedia), Bush at Ground Zero (White House / Wikimedia) and Earth (NOAA/GOES Project/NASA)