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The tragedy of 9/11 and the loss of the American soul

The terror attacks of September 11, 2001 were tragic on so many levels. On this 10th anniversary of that horrific day, our minds turn immediately to the souls and the families of the nearly-3000 people who lost their lives that day. Indeed, I think in particular of my Georgetown colleague, Leslie A. Whittington, who was on American Flight 77– along with her husband, Charles Falkenberg, and their daughters Zoe (8 years old) and Dana (3 years old). And theirs is but one of the too many sad stories of that day.

But 9/11 was also a tragedy in another sense. Without 9/11, there would have been no Guantanamo. There would have been no “enhanced interrogation techniques.” There would have been no waterboarding. There would have been no Bybee Memorandum. And, almost certainly, there would have been no Iraq War– a war that has resulted in the deaths of over 100,000 people at a cost of over 3 trillion dollars. The initial Allied response against al Qaeda and the Taliban in the fall of 2001 made perfect sense. But rather than reinforce the operations in Afghanistan and concentrate on al Qaeda, the United States lost focus and moved to attack Iraq. And in its treatment of detainees, America lost its long-standing adherence to international humanitarian law.

And, thus, at a deeper level, the United States lost its soul.  A country committed to truth, justice, and human rights found itself on the wrong side of all those values. The pre-9/11 innocence– if it ever really existed– can never be regained. But we can reclaim our soul by vowing and acting to become the nation that the better angels of our nature implore us to be.

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Welcome! Who am I?

Anthony Clark Arend is Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the Director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Commentary and analysis at the intersection of international law and politics.