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Practically every American over the age of 30 remembers exactly where they were and what they were doing that clear morning of September 11, 2001.

Almost 3,000 people were killed when 19 militants associated with the extremist group al Qaeda commandeered four civilian aircraft, crashing them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania. The horror, pain, and grief of that tragic moment and the days that followed are seared painfully into our memories. 

What figures less prominently in our collective consciousness is the horror, pain, and grief that other innocent civilians have experienced as a direct or indirect result of the U.S. response to the 9/11 attacks.

What figures less prominently in our collective consciousness is the horror, pain, and grief that other innocent civilians have experienced as a direct or indirect result of the U.S. response to the 9/11 attacks. Since 2001,  more than 387,000 civilians have been killed during U.S. wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and other countries. Most of that violence has been carried out without significant media or public attention in the United States. 

The decision to treat the 9/11 attacks as a war rather than as a matter for law enforcement was a fateful one. Previous acts of international terrorism, such as the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, were addressed through the U.S. legal system, with the responsible parties arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced in civilian courts.

This time, Congress  acted quickly to approve an open-ended  Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) against not only the group that conducted the assault, but against “those nations, organizations, or persons [the President] determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons.” Only one member of Congress, Rep. Barbara Lee (CA-13),  stood up to vote against that authorization. 

That language has been stretched far beyond its original purpose, resulting in more than 20 years of war, $8 trillion in U.S. government spending, and the displacement of 38 million people. According to the Brown University  Costs of War project, from 2018 to 2020, the United States conducted militarized counterterrorism operations in 85 countries around the world, including air and drone strikes in at least seven countries. Most of these operations were conducted with limited congressional oversight and little public knowledge. Of the current 535 senators and representatives,  only 72 were present for the 2001 vote. The rest have never voted to authorize any of the current wars. 

Despite the awesome power of the U.S. military, these wars have neither eliminated nor reduced international terrorism.

Despite the awesome power of the U.S. military, these wars have neither eliminated nor reduced international terrorism. As  a new FCNL report details, the U.S. War on Terror has failed to achieve its goals, instead fueling conflict and militant recruitment and boosting anti-American sentiment.

Especially in countries the United States has bombed or invaded, or to which it has provided counterterrorism training and assistance, there are now more fighters and groups willing to engage in terrorism, and more civilian harm.  

Quakers share a belief that the spirit of God lives in all of us, and that all lives have equal value. As we reflect on the terrible loss of life on that fateful day 21 years ago, let us also grieve the innocent civilians who have died in the wars that followed, and take action to stop the carnage. It’s time to repeal the blank check for war known as the 2001 AUMF, as well as the  outdated and dangerous 2002 law that authorized force against the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq. Saddam Hussein is long gone, and the Iraq war was declared over in 2011, so leaving the authorization on the books makes it easier for presidents to launch new wars without a vote by Congress, as required under the Constitution.   

As a practical and moral matter, we must find a more peaceful way to protect people from harm and prevent the outbreak of violent conflict. The first step is recognizing that the current approach is unnecessary and ineffective, and only compounds the challenges facing our nation. 

Diana Ohlbaum, Senior Strategist and Legislative Director for Foreign Policy

Diana Ohlbaum

Senior Strategist and Legislative Director for Foreign Policy
Diana Ohlbaum directs FCNL’s foreign policy lobbying team and leads an effort to replace the current U.S. foreign policy paradigm of military domination and national superiority with a more ethical and effective one based on cooperation and mutual respect.