“That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”
Nineteen years ago today, the United States Congress passed Public Law 107-40, the Authorization for Use of Military Force — containing the crucial 60-word sentence you just read — with near-unanimous support. The vote followed a prayer service at the National Cathedral.
During the session, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) rose to speak. She urged her colleagues to consider the consequences of their actions, to practice restraint against anger. Lee concluded with the words Rev. Nathan Baxter spoke to the congregation that morning: “As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore.”
Lee’s was the only vote in the House or Senate cast in opposition to the resolution.
I tell this story for two reasons. One: to commemorate Barbara Lee’s solitary courage. And two: because that sentence, drafted to be as open-ended as possible and passed in retaliatory haste became the legal foundation for what we now call the War in Afghanistan.
But it didn’t end there. As journalist Gregory D. Johnsen writes, that sentence became “the legal foundation for nearly every counterterrorism operation the U.S. has conducted since Sept. 11, from Guantanamo Bay and drone strikes to secret renditions and SEAL raids.” We live in a world forged from that resolution.
Being born into an age of atrocity, you forget that there ever was an age before it. I — and pretty much all undergrads — don’t remember a world before 9/11, before Public Law 107-40, before the Patriot Act, before our national metastasization into the War in Iraq, before Guantanamo Bay, before Abu Ghraib, before the rally-round-the-flag constriction of dissent and civil liberties, before newly emboldened islamophobia, before Freedom Fries, before the mundane reality of endless war against ambiguous terror.
This world is very new. To put it another way, if the Department of Homeland Security was a student at Yale, it’d be in the Class of 2024.
But seriously, think about it. Could you articulate, to any degree, the difference between Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation New Dawn, Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Inherent Resolve or Operation Freedom’s Sentinel? How many U.S. personnel died among them? (7,052.) How many civilians died? (At least 480,000.) What good was any of it for? (Unclear.) Who are we actually still fighting? (Sorry, that’s classified information.)
On Sept. 12, 2001, the News ran an editorial called “Terror in America,” reflecting on the first day in a new world. “On the seventh day of the academic year, a campus of 10,000 seemed, for a moment, to engage in single, silent conversation with itself,” it reads: “The unspoken words, of course, were questions: how, who, why?”
Two decades later, the questions are much the same. Beyond the chic of calling Bush a war criminal and Obama a drone-striker, we don’t engage with this recent history to the degree it deserves. I certainly don’t. But that history has so much to teach us, particularly now.
Let me preface my next big point with three small points. One, I’m not writing this to be the perennial edgy college columnist who declares what the real tragedy was, nor am I here to gate-keep grief. Two, in April, I wrote about the problem of comparing everything to war, so I’m aware of the slight contradiction. Three, I will not describe the pandemic as “sixty-three 9/11’s,” or one death as “0.00033 9/11’s.” Tragedy deserves more than fractions.
Those who wish to dismiss 9/11 as nothing but a blip against a larger canvas of U.S. warmongering and those who refuse to see it as anything more than an existential attack on freedom deny the date its due historical and emotional significance. Both camps assume the suffering endured before, during and after to be inevitable or natural. The choice between mourning the dead and recognizing what caused and what came about as a result of said death is a false choice. We have to choose both.
To truly remember the extraordinary tragedy of 9/11, we must never forget the horror that sprouted from it, horror that humanity chose, horror that crept its way into normalcy. We are six months into a tragedy unparalleled in my conscious life. If we can make the man-made advent of the War on Terror seem natural, imagine how easy it will be to make a pandemic seem natural.
Will we forget that the pandemic exploded because of human decisions, that it has endured because of human decisions and that — with 194,000 Americans dead — we have decided to forego collective mourning of who and what we’ve lost? With the War on Terror in mind, should that decision even surprise us?
I’m the youngest in my family. My memory of 9/11 is cast in negative, defined by what my sisters and parents remember, by what I don’t. In the days following, my dad worked near Ground Zero as part of the recovery efforts; Mom kept us safe as fear permeated her worldview. My high school in lower Manhattan lost 60 members of its community.
Every morning for the four years I commuted to the city, I walked a quarter-mile down Metropolitan Avenue to the subway. The road’s westward stretch forms a vista that reaches through Queens, over Brooklyn, over the East River and to — almost precisely — the World Trade Center. Every morning, I walked in the light of the sunrise that bounced off the Freedom Tower’s glass facade.
Looking into the 94-story mirror, then still under construction, now practically vacant amid another crisis that is becoming the new normal, I wonder:
For how much longer will we continue to forget?
ERIC KREBS is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column runs on alternate weeks. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .