The dust and debris have long ago been cleared from the site where once stood the Twin Towers. In their place, great gleaming spires now stand. It has been nearly one year since the 1,776-foot tall One World Trade Center began accepting new tenants and almost 18 months since the memorial to the attacks opened to the public. At the Pentagon, the damage wrought by attackers was fully repaired, and the outermost ring of offices was occupied again exactly one year after a plane struck the south façade. A memorial to the dead in Washington D.C. was complete before George W. Bush even left office. On September 10 of this year, 152 years after the battle of Gettysburg, another empty field in Pennsylvania was solemnly consecrated when a memorial dedicated to the Americans who lost their lives in combat against an enemy of the Republic belatedly began accepting visitors. Americans thought that they had fully reconciled the September 11th attacks, but the specters of that terrible day still haunt our memories as they haunt our politics. The wounds have not fully healed, and the current debates roiling both American political parties reflect that.
Donald Trump contends that he is not blaming George W. Bush for failing to prevent 9/11, but he is certainly implying it strongly. In the insurgent candidate’s effort to tar Jeb Bush, he has begun to focus on the former Florida governor’s contention that his brother “kept us safe” by preventing a second domestic terror attack during his two terms in office. In an interview with Bloomberg TV, Trump contended that this assertion was wrong. “He was president, OK?” Trump postured. “Blame him or don’t blame him, but he was president. The World Trade Center came down during his reign.” This offhand remark has led the real estate mogul into an ever-deepening rhetorical quagmire.
The question of whether the 9/11 attack might have been prevented was settled in American political minds when it was debated rather strenuously during the 2004 election cycle. To the extent that questions persist, they reside almost exclusively in the fevered minds of conspiracy theorists. There were warnings that pertained to 9/11 as there were warnings that pertained to a hundred other Islamist threats that never materialized, but hindsight is characterized unique clarity.
Seemingly incapable of retreat under all but the most ignominious of circumstances, Trump opened another front in this debate when he claimed that he, as president, would have almost certainly prevented those attacks. Noting that he would be “extremely, extremely tough on immigration,” Trump told “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace that he would have somehow deported those 9/11 hijackers who entered the country legally. This, as Max Boot observed, is nonsense; at least, unless Trump is finally confessing that his hawkish approach to immigration includes the draconian curtailment of both work and tourist visas. As predicted, some of the celebrity candidate’s unflappable defenders have pointed to Trump’s 2000 book, in which he noted that Osama bin Laden might be planning spectacular attacks on New York City, as proof of his clairvoyance. But anyone who read a newspaper between the 1998 embassy attacks and the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole might have written the same.
The desire to embrace the notion that somehow those attacks could have been prevented and the dangerous world in which we now reside might have been averted is an understandable temptation. For all the threats that metastasized during Bill Clinton’s administration, the decade in which he served as chief executive was a time that many recall fondly. Peace and prosperity; the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the information age. The loss of that American summer is bitterly perceived.
Today is a time characterized by the resurrection of slavery, of child executioners, and of the destruction of shared human history in the Middle East. It is a time when the Russian bear is no longer placid, and the Chinese dragon encroaches on lands it covets. It is a time when the information age has turned into an era of cyberterrorism; when the conveniences of the digitized life can be snuffed out in an instant and by unknown forces. Now is a time when the specter of mass death wrought by weapons of great destructive power has been revived as state and non-state actors alike look nervously toward their proliferating arsenals. Trump’s is the hollow promise of a return to a safer period, which is a seductive as it is illusory.
The GOP isn’t the only party re-litigating history. The war that George W. Bush prosecuted against Osama bin Laden’s organization may persist, but the war against the man ended on May 2, 2011. As the world descends into chaos, the death of that terrorist mastermind remains one of the few foreign policy feathers in the Obama administration’s cap. His prospective successors are hoping to capitalize on their proximity to the president in that moment of triumph. It is a testament to the Democratic Party’s struggles on the foreign policy front that prospective presidential candidate Vice President Joe Biden apparently perceives his greatest weakness as the oft-reported anecdote that he advised against the successful raid on bin Laden’s Pakistani compound.
Unprompted, Biden took the opportunity on Tuesday to clarify that he had not opposed that raid, but merely deferred to the rest of the president’s cabinet before recommending one more pass over the Abbottabad compound with an unmanned vehicle before sending in a SEAL team. In an effort to undercut Hillary Clinton, Biden said that the only Cabinet members who expressed definitive views on the raid were the then CIA director and the secretary of defense. “As we walked out of the room and went upstairs, I told him my opinion, that I said that I thought he should go but follow his own instincts,” Biden said he advised the president.
“Mr. Biden is widely seen as having been one of Mr. Obama’s more dovish advisors on foreign policy, while Mrs. Clinton was considered more hawkish,” the New York Times reported. “Until now, nothing more clearly shows the difference between them than their views on raiding the Abbottabad compound in Pakistan where Bin Laden was found and killed in May 2011.”
The nation’s sentimental attachment to the idea of retrenchment that catapulted Barack Obama into the White House has long since receded. Obama’s efforts to decouple American security from the rest of the world and to maintain American national security almost exclusively through military advisors and drones has fallen out of favor, even among Democrats.
As Republicans have been thrust back into the debate over 9/11, Democrats are now tinkering around the edges of what will become a broader intramural feud over the conduct of American national security. The party’s debate over who was the most in favor of the raid on bin Laden’s compound is a conduit though which to address the next president’s approach to the global war on terrorism inaugurated on the morning of September 11, 2001.
The extent to which the 9/11 attacks still dominate our politics is often obscured by fleeting passions of the moment or pressing debates that, in retrospect, were not as urgent as they seemed at the time. There are occasionally moments like the one in which we are in now that reveal how totally the world changed on that day and how the American political dialogue will never be the same as it was on September 10. We might choose to ignore them for as long as we can stand it, but the ghosts of 9/11 still haunt us and they still demand of us consideration and recompense.