What Have We Learned?
The life of a nation ten years later.


After Osama bin Laden’s demise in Abbottabad, Pakistan, many Americans speculated that al-Qaeda’s days were numbered. Bin Laden’s death in early May undoubtedly weakened al-Qaeda — and probably more than any other kill or capture in the War on Terror. But al-Qaeda and its allies have not been defeated. The jihadist terror network has continually found new pools of talent from which it can replace fallen leaders, albeit with individuals of lower skill. One pool of talent, however, is highly-skilled: former Guantanamo detainees.

Senior leadership slots in both al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Taliban are filled by former Guantanamo detainees. Said al-Shihri, the current number two of AQAP, is a former Guantanamo detainee. So are AQAP’s chief mufti (theological guide) and some of its military commanders. Mullah Mohammad Omar’s top military commander is a former Guantanamo detainee known as Mullah Zakir, who is especially ruthless.

U.S. and U.K. military officials consider Zakir the most dangerous Taliban commander on the planet. This Gitmo alumnus has led operations that have killed as many as a dozen U.S. Marines in southern Afghanistan and an untold number of Afghans as well.

Yet Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO) threat assessments deemed Zakir a “medium” as opposed to “high” risk, despite his known ties to senior Taliban leaders. Intelligence analysts thought Zakir was more dangerous than the evidence revealed, but they couldn’t prove it. So, Washington decided to rely on the government of Afghanistan to keep tabs on him, and he quickly rejoined the fight.

The lesson is simple: If the U.S. will not hold suspected terrorists under the laws of war, no other nation can be counted on to do so either.

— Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an editor of the Long War Journal.

The chief lesson of the ten years following September 11? That our political and cultural differences are so profound that they yielded only temporarily to a surging sense of national unity following unprecedented disaster.

In 2001, solemnly recycled bromides portentously proclaimed that the murderous terror attacks had altered our nation forever and that “nothing would ever be the same.” But most things are, in fact, very much the same.

There’s an antique, almost other-worldly quality to the historic footage of Congressional leaders of both parties gathered on the Capitol steps, singing “God Bless America” together. Within months, their touchingly sincere, slightly off-key chorus had become a distant memory as Republicans and Democrats returned to their savage partisan habits, and the ACLU resumed its appalling habit of fighting any mention of God in public places.

In May, 2002, NFL player Pat Tillman inspired the nation by giving up his $1 million salary to enlist in the Army Rangers. Two years later, friendly fire killed him in Afghanistan, encouraging countless conspiracy theories and disgracing the military for its dishonest accounts of the tragedy. In short, the mood of patriotism and unity lasted no longer than the ubiquitous American-flag decals and “United We Stand” bumper stickers that briefly decorated our vehicles.

What undermined the “Spirit of 9/11” wasn’t CIA failure to snuff out Osama at Tora Bora or the Bush decision to invade Iraq. A short-lived sense of shared vulnerability and common destiny quickly gave way to the same splits that divided the country long before the attacks, and continue to do so today.

Beyond the various issues that separate liberals and conservatives, the core distinction centers on radically different conceptions of America’s place in the world. The Right believes we live in a uniquely blessed and freakishly benevolent country, and we hope the rest of the world will follow our example. The Left feels that the United States bears distinctive guilt for an array of sins (genocide against Native Americans, slavery, imperialism, economic exploitation) and hopes we can learn from more enlightened societies elsewhere on the planet.

The two sides both insist they love America, with the Left explaining that it adores what America could be and the Right revering what America once was. Neither side feels encouraged by the United States as it actually exists ten years after September 11, with polls showing fewer than 20 percent believing we’re headed in the right direction. The moment of unified, patriotic purpose that followed the mass slaughter at the World Trade Center led to admiring comments about the resilience of our national spirit, but it’s actually our underlying divisions that have proven sadly resilient. And our unjustified cynicism looks increasingly intractable.

— Michael Medved is a nationally syndicated talk-radio host and author (most recently) of The 5 Big Lies About American Business.