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Opinion | How 9/11 Turned America Into a Half-Crazed, Fading Power

“The 9/11 attack turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory for Al Qaeda. The group shattered in the immediate aftermath of the Taliban regime’s collapse, and most of its top leaders were either killed or captured,” Lahoud wrote. Those who survived went into hiding and lost the ability to carry out major assaults abroad. America could have credibly declared itself the war’s winner at the end of 2001, sparing countless lives, trillions of dollars and our national honor.

Instead, we remained in Afghanistan and invaded Iraq, where our war sowed chaos that would enable the rise of ISIS. In time, ISIS, originally a spinoff of Al Qaeda, came to eclipse the group founded by Bin Laden. ISIS’ indiscriminate brutality, especially against other Muslims, appalled an earlier generation of jihadists; some of Al Qaeda’s original leadership ended up like many other aging, disillusioned radicals, disgusted by the excesses of their progeny.

But this doesn’t mean Bin Laden failed. Today Al Qaeda has reconstituted itself — it is now far larger than it was two decades ago. And the United States in September 2021 is in truly terrible shape. Twenty years ago we were credulous and blundering. Now we’re sour, suspicious and lacking in discernible ideals.

“The advance of freedom is the calling of our time; it is the calling of our country,” George W. Bush said in 2003. But this epoch of aggressive jingoism, ethnic profiling, escalating paranoia, torture, secret prisons, broken soldiers, dead civilians and dashed imperial dreams has left freedom in retreat both globally and here at home.

Bush’s own political party has radicalized against democracy. Faith in human freedom has curdled into the petulant solipsism of the anti-vaxxers. Since 9/11, more Americans have been killed by far-right terrorists than by jihadists. White supremacists have both recruited disillusioned veterans of the war on terror and encouraged their supporters to join the military to gain tactical experience. Of the 569 people the Department of Justice has charged in the Jan. 6 insurrection, at least 48 have military ties.

You can’t draw a straight line between the twin towers falling and America entering a protracted nervous breakdown; the end of any empire has multiple causes. But in his recent book “Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump,” Spencer Ackerman convincingly links the madness that overcame this country after Sept. 11 with the rise of a president who, among other things, campaigned on a promise to end Muslim immigration and bring back torture.

“The painful condition of neither peace nor victory, against an enemy seen as practically subhuman, itself required vengeance,” Ackerman wrote. “Trump offered himself as its instrument. Declaring his presidential candidacy in his golden tower, he asked, ‘When was the last time the U.S. won at anything?’”

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