The vital things to know about 9-11, painful and so seldom mentioned today

Summary:  A look back at 9-11.  What have we learned?  What were the important responses to 9-11?  How should we see this event in the context of America’s history?  At the end are links to other useful articles about 9-11 and al Qaeda.


America is flooded today with emotional  commemoratives about 9-11.  For that I recommend reading “Let’s Cancel 9/11 – Bury the War State’s Blank Check at Sea” by Tom Engelhardt — as usual for Engelhardt, it’s brilliant and well-written.  But the FM website provides something different:  a cold focus on the facts necessary for survival.   In that light there are two essential things to know about 9-11:

  • It was the one of the (perhaps the) most effective single military operation in the history of the world.
  • It was exploited by both western governments and jihadists, operating in an almost symbiotic manner.

Both of these have been described extensively since 9-11, both on the FM website and elsewhere.  This post gives a summary.


  1. 9/11 was the most effective single military operation, ever
  2. About our lost civil liberties
  3. About al Qaeda and our jihadist foes

(1)  9/11 was the most effective single military operation, ever

This was posed as a question here on 11 June 2008.  Three years later the answer is clear, as the Obama Administration has institutionalized the course changes made by Bush Jr in the evolution of America:  militarization of foreign policy, cancerous growth of the US internal security, intelligence, and miliary apparatus.  Massive erosion of civil liberties.  They are now bipartisan policies.  In our system that makes them almost impossible to change.

With a single strike al Qaeda changed the course of the world’s hegemon, by many measures the most powerful nation (relative to its time) that the world has ever seen. Al Qaeda did this at a negligible cost in money and manpower.   As RJH said in the comments:  “The purpose of an action is the reaction.”

Never have so few changed the life of  so many with so little effort. Our counter-strikes have damaged or crippled al Qaeda (perhaps even destroyed it), but its leaders may see al Qaeda as the vanguard of their movement, not its body — and hence expendable (we do not know their calculations).  The entire organization may have deliberately or by miscalculation acted as a kamikaze.

Al Qaeda manipulated America as a matador does with a bull, waving a cape to so that the bull charges into position for the thrust of the sword.  9/11 changed the course of America in terms of both internal and external policy, changing both in ways almost certainly inimical to our long-term strength and prosperity. Our liberties curtailed (see this ACLU study), the government police, security, intelligence, and military services have expanded like cancers — draining resources from the overall society.

9-11 was not a decisive battle in the traditional form, where thousands fight to determine the fate of nations.  A dozen guys with box cutters deliberately set out to change the course of a nation – and succeeded. The multiple of force to effect is astonishing, beyond anything I can think of in history.

(1.a)  Ahead of the pack (as usual) in seeing this, Tom Engelhardt discusses al Qaeda’s triumph in “Kiss American Security Goodbye: 15 Numbers That Add Up to an Age of Insecurity, 15 May 2008.  Excerpt:

The principle behind Tai Chi stayed with me — that you could multiply the force of an act by giving way before the force of others; that a smaller person could use the strength of a bigger one against him.  Now, jump to September 11, 2001 and its aftermath — and you know the Tai Chi version of history from there. Think of it as a grim cosmic joke — that the 9/11 attacks, as apocalyptic as they looked, were anything but. The true disasters followed and the wounds were largely self-inflicted, as the most militarily powerful nation on the planet used its own force to disable itself.

Before that fateful day, the Bush administration had considered terrorism, Osama bin Laden, and al-Qaeda subjects for suckers and wusses. What they were intent on was pouring money into developing an elaborate boondoggle of a missile defense system against future nuclear attacks by rogue states. Those Cold War high frontiersmen (and women) couldn’t get enough of the idea of missiling up. That, after all, was where the money and the fun seemed to be. Nuclear was where the big boys — the nation states — played. “Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S….,” the CIA told the President that August. Yawn.

After 9/11, of course, George W. Bush and his top advisors almost instantly launched their crusade against Islam and then their various wars, all under the rubric of the Global War on Terror. (As Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld pungently put the matter that September, “We have a choice — either to change the way we live, which is unacceptable, or to change the way that they live; and we chose the latter.”)

By then, they were already heading out to “drain the swamp” of evil doers, 60 countries worth of them, if necessary. Meanwhile, they moved quickly to fight the last battle at home, the one just over, by squandering vast sums on an American Maginot Line of security. The porous new Department of Homeland Security, the NSA, the FBI, and other acronymic agencies were to lock down, surveil, and listen in on America. All this to prevent “the next 9/11.”

In the process, they would treat bin Laden’s scattered al-Qaeda network as if it were the Nazi or Soviet war machine (even comically dubbing his followers “Islamofascists”). In the blinking of an eye, and in the rubble of two enormous buildings in downtown Manhattan, bin Laden and his cronies had morphed from nobodies into supermen, a veritable Legion of Doom. (There was a curious parallel to this transformation in World War II. Before Pearl Harbor, American experts had considered the Japanese — as historian John Dower so vividly documented in his book War Without Mercy — bucktoothed, near-sighted military incompetents whose war planes were barely capable of flight. On December 8, 1941, they suddenly became a race of invincible supermen without, in the American imagination, ever passing through a human incarnation.)

When, in October 2001, Congress passed the Patriot Act, and an Office of Homeland Security (which, in 2002, became a “department”) was established, it was welcome to the era of homeland insecurity. From then on, every major building, landmark, amusement park, petting zoo, flea market, popcorn stand, and toll booth anywhere in the country would be touted as a potential target for terrorists and in need of protection. Every police department from Arkansas to Ohio would be in desperate need of anti-terror funding. And why not, when the terrorists loomed so monstrously large, were so apocalyptically capable, and wanted so very badly to destroy our way of life? No wonder that, in the 2006 National Asset Database, compiled by the Department of Homeland Security, the state of Indiana, “with 8,591 potential terrorist targets, had 50% more listed sites than New York (5,687) and more than twice as many as California (3,212), ranking the state the most target-rich place in the nation.”

(1.b)  For more information about 9-11

  1. Important:  Al Qaeda’s bases in Afghanistan has little to do with 9-11, 10 August 2009 — About one of the big lies supporting the Long War
  2. How 9/11 Should Be Remembered – The Extraordinary Achievements of Ordinary People“, By Rebecca Solnit, TomDispatch, 11 September 2009
  3. The Lies They Told“, New York Times, 15 November 2009 — Review of The Ground Truth – The Untold Story of America Under Attack on 9/11 by John Farmer.
  4. About the strategic significance of bin Laden’s execution, and the road not taken, 5 May 2011
  5. Perhaps the most valuable perspective about 9-11:  “Orwell, 9/11, Emmanuel Goldstein and WikiLeaks“, Glenn Greenwals, Salon, 10 September 2011
  6. About our cowardly domestic response to 9-11 (esp compared to other nations):  “We refuse to live in fear!”, Glenn Greenwald, Salon, 12 September 2011 — The title is ironic.
  7. The meaning of political rituals like 9/11 Day“, Glenn Greenwald, Salon, 13 September 2011

(1.c)  Other articles explaining that AQ is winning, in an important sense

  • Why al-Qaeda is winning“, Pepe Escobar, Asia Times, 11 September 2011
  • The Long War’s Long Tail“, Foreign Policy, 30 August 2011 — “Daveed Gartenstein-Ross’s new book, Bin Laden’s Legacy, wonders which side actually is winning the war on terror. ”  As an American geopolitical expert, G-R’s works to hype threats.  Even so, his analysis of AQ’s goals for 9/11 make sense.

(2)  About our lost civil liberties

(2.a)  How we have changed during the past 30 years:  “Daniel Ellsberg: All the crimes Richard Nixon committed against me are now legal“, CNN, 7 June 2011 — We’re now a domesticated people.  Excerpt:

Richard Nixon, if he were alive today, would feel vindicated that all the crimes he committed against me – which forced his resignation facing impeachment – are now legal. … That includes burglarizing my former psychoanalyst’s office (for material to blackmail me into silence), warrantless wiretapping, using the CIA against an American citizen in the US, and authorizing a White House hit squad to “incapacitate me totally” (on the steps of the Capitol on 3 May 1971). All the above were to prevent me from exposing guilty secrets of his own administration that went beyond the Pentagon Papers. But under George W. Bush and Barack Obama,with the PATRIOT Act, the FISA Amendment Act, and (for the hit squad) President Obama’s executive orders. they have all become legal.

There is no further need for present or future presidents to commit obstructions of justice (like Nixon’s bribes to potential witnesses) to conceal such acts. Under the new laws, Nixon would have stayed in office, and the Vietnam War would have continued at least several more years.

Likewise, where Nixon was the first president in history to use the 54-year-old Espionage Act to indict an American (me) for unauthorized disclosures to the American people (it had previously been used, as intended, exclusively against spies), he would be impressed to see that President Obama has now brought five such indictments against leaks, almost twice as many as all previous presidents put together (three).

He could only admire Obama’s boldness in using the same Espionage Act provisions used against me–almost surely unconstitutional used against disclosures to the American press and public in my day, less surely under the current Supreme Court–to indict Thomas Drake, a classic whistleblower who exposed illegality and waste in the NSA.

(2.b) A Call to Courage: Reclaiming Our Liberties Ten Years After 9/11“, American Civil Liberties Union, 7 September 2011 — Opening:

An ACLU report release to coincide with the 10th anniversary of 9/11 warns that a decade after the attacks, the United States is at risk of enshrining a permanent state of emergency in which core values must be subordinated to ever-expanding claims of national security.  {it} explores how sacrificing America’s values – including justice, individual liberty, and the rule of law – ultimately undermines safety.

The report begins with an examination of the contention that the U.S. is engaged in a “war on terror” that takes place everywhere and will last forever, and that therefore counterterrorism measures cannot be balanced against any other considerations such as maintaining civil liberties. The report states that the United States has become an international legal outlier in invoking the right to use lethal force and indefinite military detention outside battle zones, and that these policies have hampered the international fight against terrorism by straining relations with allies and handing a propaganda tool to enemies.

(2.c) Post-9/11, NSA ‘enemies’ include us“, James Bamford, Politico, 8 September 2011 — Blamford wrote The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America.  Excerpt:

Within weeks of the attacks, the giant ears of the National Security Agency, always pointed outward toward potential enemies, turned inward on the American public itself. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, established 23 years before to ensure that only suspected foreign agents and terrorists were targeted by the NSA, would be bypassed. Telecom companies, required by law to keep the computerized phone records of their customers confidential unless presented with a warrant, would secretly turn them over in bulk to the NSA without ever asking for a warrant.

… On Aug. 17, 1975, as America was enjoying a lazy summer watching “Jaws” and “The Exorcist” at the movies, Idaho Sen. Frank Church took his seat on “Meet the Press.” For months, as the first chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Church had been conducting the first in-depth investigation of America’s growing intelligence community.

When he looked into the NSA, he came away shocked by its potential for abuse. Without mentioning the agency’s name — almost forbidden at the time — he nonetheless offered an unsolicited but grave warning:

“That capability at any time could be turned around on the American people and no American would have any privacy left, such [is] the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter,” Church said. “There would be no place to hide. If this government ever became a tyrant, if a dictator ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of the government to know. Such is the capability of this technology.

“I don’t want to see this country ever go across the bridge. I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America, and we must see to it that this agency and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision so that we never cross over that abyss. That is the abyss from which there is no return.”

(3)  About al Qaeda and our jihadist foes

(3.a) The Al-Qaeda Myth“, Max Fisher, The Atlantic, 9 September 2011 — “Why are we so apt to see the terrorist group or its offshoots where they don’t really exist?”  Fisher carefully avoids mention of the US government’s motive to exaggerate al Qaeda’s strength, and their history of doing so since 9-11.  Excerpt:

In  the decade since September 11, al-Qaeda has become physically isolated,  less capable of striking its enemies, and largely shunned by the  worldwide Islamic community it had wanted to lead. But it has succeeded  enormously in persuading many in the West of much the opposite. Al-Qaeda  wants us to see them everywhere, to imagine the group as a global  movement with bloodthirsty agents in every corner, waiting for the order to strike. And we have often obliged,  slapping al-Qaeda’s label on just about every militant group or  homicidal fanatic that happens to observe Islam, the world’s second most common religion. How we got here reveals as much about our own  propensity for over-reaction as it does about al-Qaeda’s one remaining great  skill: branding.

… Such is the trend of al-Qaeda’s supposed branches: local militant groups  that have little interest in al-Qaeda’s globally oriented ideology or  mission nonetheless find it useful to claim they do. Often, whatever  government is fighting that local group also finds it useful to  claim an al-Qaeda connection, as Western governments tend to be willing  to overlook abuses by and write lavish checks to a government that says  it is at war with al-Qaeda.

… But the great al-Qaeda menace is not what they would have us believe. Look at the data: the wave of terrorist attacks against the West, which September 11 was supposed to inspire, never came: not from the real al-Qaeda, which paid  dearly for their attack, and not from the so-called “franchises” that  show little real interest in following al-Qaeda’s suicidal mission.

(3.b)  Making stuff up to fuel the Long War:  “Shadowy Figure: Al Qaeda’s Size Is Hard To Measure“, Wall Street Journal, 10 September 2011 — Confident guessing and exaggeration as the foundation for America’s grand strategy.  Opening:

Ten years after al Qaeda carried out the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S., the terrorist network’s ranks have been under persistent assault. Yet it remains a credible threat, security analysts say, as demonstrated by intelligence suggesting al Qaeda militants were planning attacks around this weekend’s anniversary.  The U.S. government has pursued and killed key members, notably leader Osama bin Laden. But terrorism experts can’t even agree on how to measure the group, let alone whether it has been growing.

The following sections link to more information about al Qaeda.

(3.c)  See all posts on the FM website about al Qaeda here.

(3.d)  Posts about bin Laden:

  1. Was 9/11 the most effective single military operation in the history of the world?, 11 June 2008
  2. Bin Laden wins by using the “Tactics of Mistake” against America, 6 February 2011
  3. A brief note about the death of bin Laden, 2 May 2011
  4. Important:  About the strategic significance of bin Laden’s execution, and the road not taken, 5 May 2011

(3.e)  These posts about AQ remain relevant today:

  1. Important:  Lessons Learned from the American Expedition to Iraq, 29 December 2005 — Is al Qaeda like Cobra, SPECTRE, and THRUSH?
  2. The enigma of Al Qaeda. Even in death, these unanswered questions remain important, 15 September 2008
  3. “Strategic Divergence: The War Against the Taliban and the War Against Al Qaeda” by George Friedman, 31 January 2009
  4. Can we defeat our almost imaginary enemies?, 10 December 2009
  5. “The Almanac of Al Qaeda” – about our foe, 16 June 2010
  6. Today’s news about the Ak-Pak War, about al Qaeda’s strength, 1 July 2010
  7. Important:  Does al Qaeda still exist?, 31 March 2011

(3.f)  For more information about our Islamic foes:

  1. Important:  Are islamic extremists like the anarchists?, 14 December 2009
  2. Important:  RAND explains How Terrorist Groups End, and gives Lessons for Countering al Qa’ida, 15 January 2010
  3. Stratfor’s strategic analysis – “Jihadism in 2010: The Threat Continues”, 17 March 2010
  4. Stratfor: “Jihadism: The Grassroots Paradox”, 21 March 2010
  5. Stratfor: Setting the Record Straight on Grassroots Jihadism, 1 May 2010
  6. Hard (and disturbing) information about schools in Pakistan – the madāris , 1 May 2011



10 thoughts on “The vital things to know about 9-11, painful and so seldom mentioned today”

  1. re: (3.a) “The Al-Qaeda Myth“, Max Fisher, The Atlantic, 9 September 2011 — “Why are we so apt to see the terrorist group or its offshoots where they don’t really exist?” Fisher carefully avoids mention of the US government’s motive to exaggerate al Qaeda’s strength.

    Ok, so what is the US govt’s motive? Control of sheeple is easier if fear is used? Empire builders always always cover their ego gratification needs with a PR fog?
    FM reply: For one perspective giving an answer to this see “Orwell, 9/11, Emmanuel Goldstein and WikiLeaks“, Glenn Greenwald, Salon, 10 September 2011.

    1. ok, that makes sense. it might be worth mentioning the counter-archetype.

      “When a desperate King Zedekiah asks him to perform a miracle and save Jerusalem from the Babylonians, Jeremiah replies that the king’s fate is sealed. Jeremiah is not a miracle worker. He realizes it is up to Zedekiah to acknowledge the military superiority of the Babylonians and not engage in military adventurism. Zedekiah cannot rely on a supernatural force. He must look into his own heart and realize that it is within his own power to do the right thing. Later on, when the Judeans return from Babylonian exile, they attribute the return to the will of God, yet they themselves are the ones who take action and make the return a reality” {source}

  2. In Marvin Harris’ Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches – The Riddles of Culture (1989) he offers the theory that witchcraft trials, inquisitions, and witch-hunts served a valuable social purpose: they distracted the oppressed from their oppression and gave the powerful a nebulous excuse for prosecuting whatever they wanted. He points out that, in many areas in medieval Europe when the peasants were complaining about the boot pressing in their face, the feudal lords didn’t merely send their men-at-arms to bust some heads: they called in the inquisitors to root out the (obviously!) satanic influence that was making the peasants restive. Thus, there was no need to actually figure out who was responsible for anything – you could torture a few of the obvious trouble-makers outright, scare the crap out of the survivors, seize whatever assets you wanted (often in the form of a pogrom) and then – after the inquisition had left – the feudal lord’s boot felt much lighter as it pressed into the peasants’ faces.

    The war on terror, like the war on drugs, has the virtue of being both unwinnable and an infinite mandate for expansion of the police-state. In Orwell’s 1984, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism is the modern Necronomicon; today it’s jihadism. Emmanuel Goldstein, or Osama Bin Laden? Who cares. It’s as if the plutocrats in Versailles on the Potomac misread that 1984 was a novel and not a recommendation.

  3. Excellent, FM. Thanks for your courage to Post this type of analysis:

    “… the Obama Administration has institutionalized the course changes made by Bush Jr in the evolution of America: militarization of foreign policy, cancerous growth of the US internal security, intelligence, and miliary apparatus. Massive erosion of civil liberties. They are now bipartisan policies. In our system that makes them almost impossible to change.”

  4. Excellent post, FM. My only quarrel is in the area of semantics. I still argue that calling 9/11 a military operation is a bad idea. That suggests that the US response was appropriate as it has long been agreed that military actions beget opposing military actions.

    I prefer to call 9/11 a very successful crime against humanity and argue that we should treated it as such with a police investigation and pursuit of legal goals rather than military action.

    1. Good point, to which I agree — esp about the response. As I have said many times here, the response by police, security services, intelligence agencies — internationally — crippled al Qaeda and surprised other jihadist activities in nations not experiencing occupation by foreign infidel troops. Which fact by itself shows the relative effectiveness of civilian and military responses.

  5. Ten Years On and A Long Way Down“, by Gary Brecher (aka The War Nerd), The Exile Online, 13 September 2011 — Excerpt:

    Their whole dream got the OK from America, and it’s still hurting us every day. Stateside, all the contracts for the Iraq War were no-bid scams, just outright scams. Nobody minded. They put in every wacko friend they’d made, guys like the FEMA horse breeder who did such a great job in Katrina; nobody minded. They stripped taxes on their rich friends while they were spending a trillion dollars on their pet Iraq war; everybody cheered. I was there, I remember. I’m a big fan of the blame game myself, and I blame every single one of you suckers who bought into it.

    The war went the obvious way: Saddam’s tanks were hot scrap in a few days. It was a classic firepower demonstration, and that pretty much guaranteed a bad aftermath, because it’s hard to turn off that kind of firepower when you’re switching to reconstruction. We’ve done some good reconstructions—most of them in 1945—and some bad ones, like 1865-1876. This was one of the worst.

    There were no interpreters you could trust, none of the troops spoke Arabic, most of them had swallowed two years of Muzzie-hating from the US press.

    …Every reason for the invasion was disproved. No WMDs. No Al Qaeda links. And it damn sure wasn’t a “cakewalk.”

    But Bush’s support held. That’s when I lost my country, when he was reelected. I used to be an unhappy American nationalist, like a passenger in the back seat wondering how many drinks the driver’s had. But when we invaded Iraq, the car hit a tree—and all the passengers got out and voted to reelect the driver.

    That’s the legacy of 9/11: Two dozen spoiled unemployable dimwits managed to lobotomize my country, bankrupt it, make it such a nasty alien place I didn’t even feel part of it any more. I can’t give Osama much of the credit for that, I just don’t see him as that smart—but you know, he did say his goal was to destroy America. And with a lot of help from all you guys who used to be my fellow Americans, he could die content, because he actually managed it.

  6. President Obama lies about our reaction to 9-11, as the truth is too painful to see

    President Obama lies about our reaction to 9-11, as the truth is too painful to see. These things are obviously false.

    Remarks by the President at “A Concert for Hope” on 11 September 2011

    Ten years ago, America confronted one of our darkest nights. … In the decade since, much has changed for Americans. We’ve known war and recession, passionate debates and political divides. We can never get back the lives that were lost on that day or the Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice in the wars that followed.

    And yet today, it is worth remembering what has not changed. Our character as a nation has not changed. Our faith -– in God and in each other –- that has not changed. Our belief in America, born of a timeless ideal that men and women should govern themselves; that all people are created equal, and deserve the same freedom to determine their own destiny –- that belief, through tests and trials, has only been strengthened.

    These past 10 years have shown that America does not give in to fear.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: