We are five years away now from the incineration of the Twin Towers when, in one blow, 19 radical religious zealots with a memory for Crusades and a hatred for the United States turned the world upside down. Or we did. It’s very hard to tell five years later who really did more of the turning.
What specific concerns drove these men to the point where they would give up their own lives just to injure ours is hard to tell. Few asked, and fewer still seemed to care. In the midst of national grief—and for many, anger—all that mattered, apparently, was who to strike in retaliation. Anybody would do, it seemed. And so we did.
The world needn’t have changed the day the Towers went down or even, perhaps, with the military attack on the Taliban in Afghanistan. It certainly changed, however, on the day when, without clear proof of Iraq’s involvement, without undeniable certainty, without the approval of most of the world, the United States roared over Iraq on bombing raids and rolled into Baghdad to tear down the statue of Saddam Hussein.
On that day—not long after the whole world had grieved with us over the merciless loss of 3,000 innocent U.S. lives—the world divided in its loyalties, most of them against us.
Now the United States, once the most open country in the world, has become a country under siege. Now we make 80-year-old widows and 6-year-old boys take off their shoes in our airports to make sure they are not carrying explosives designed to harm us again. Now we have been longer at war with the ghosts of these 19 men than we were with Nazi Germany in World War II. Now we have become invaders, torturers, paranoid partners in global destabilization. The people who would “meet us with flowers singing in the streets” have left us with more than 18,000 wounded, 10,000 of them permanently disabled, and more than 2,500 dead.