I agree with most of this excellent post trying to put 9/11 into historical perspective by Erik and LGM, but one of his throwaway comments I have to quarrel with:
Of course, 9/11 also led to the Iraq War, the use of torture, and other events…..
Seriously, that's all I really disagree with. And far be it for me to disagree with a historian on this sort of thing, but this comment—that 9/11 led to the Iraq War and to torture—is just a variation on a sentiment that I've seen trotted out in many forms. I want to vehemently disagree. I think the Iraq War became inevitable after the Supreme Court handed Bush the election. In fact, I would argue that the strangest thing about the aftermath of 9/11 is how little it mattered beyond being a convenient rallying cry to rationalize all sorts of atrocities. But conservatives being what they are, if it wasn't 9/11 that gave them a rallying point, it would have been something else.
There's a few reasons I believe this. The most important is the most obvious: Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. The rationale for the Iraq War was made-up WMDs, and while 9/11 was invoked frequently to juice up American bloodlust, it wasn't actually the rationale. The evidence points the Bush administration already having their roll out for the Iraq War laid out before 9/11, and Richard Clark's recollection that the first thing Bush told him after the attack was concoct a way to fit this attack into their pre-existing plans confirmed that. Bush was going to have his war no matter what. He had it in his head that ousting Saddam Hussein would be his legacy, and I don't imagine that much would have gotten in his way. Americans were easy to whip into a frenzy for the first war against Iraq, and there was no national crisis to exploit in order to get that reaction. We watch a lot of action movies. It's easy to convince us we can blow some shit up and walk away victors with very little effort.
Honestly, I imagine even torture was inevitable. The reason we tortured was that Bush's people find it exciting to do so, because it makes up for their failures as high school athletes or being virgins until their 20s or something. Once you're willing to concoct an illegal, unnecessary war to shore up your manhood, there's a plodding inevitability to the war crimes that will follow.
The main things 9/11 caused that wouldn't have happened otherwise were the Afghanistan war and the survellaince state. I imagine if Gore won, the former would have been more intense but hopefully shorter, and the latter would have been far more subdued and quite possibly restricted just to airports. And that's assuming that 9/11 would have happened under Gore. There's reason to believe it may not have; unlike Bush, Gore held national office during Bin Laden's prior attacks on our country and was probably more cognizant of the threat. And because of that it's possible he would have run intelligence services better and taken warnings that Bush blew off far more seriously. They may not have been enough to stop it, but it would have given us a fighting chance.
So, in the grand scheme of things, Bush v. Gore was far more important in terms of impact than 9/11 was. But I think people tend to overrate the historical importance of great crimes in general. 9/11 proved more than anything that it's how we react when bad shit goes down that ends up mattering more than the bad shit did in the first place. There was a lot of talk in the past decade and on this anniversary of how 9/11 was squandered, but I'm really unsure there's a productive response to such a thing beyond acknowledging the sadness and taking steps to prevent future tragedies. Some things just aren't fixable.
As a side note, I want to praise the memorial at the WTC that's opening to the public today. I saw the pictures on TV and am impressed with its size and beauty. It's not easy trying to concoct the proper response to a horrible crime that both acknowledges what happened but doesn't re-traumatize by being too literal, and I think the designers of the memorial did a really good job. For the first time since I've lived here, I'm actually considering making a special trip to the site on my own, because I want to see this beautiful memorial with my own eyes. Prior to now, "visiting" a site of the murder of thousands of people seemed morbid.
Update: I was alerted on Twitter to this Time magazine profile of Colin Powell from 9/10/01:
And as soon as Wolfowitz, a zealous advocate of "regime change" in Baghdad–backing dissidents to overthrow Saddam–settled into his office, he told European parliamentarians that Powell was not the last word on sanctions or Iraq policy. Enthusiasm is building inside the Administration to take down Saddam once and for all. Powell too would love to see Saddam unhorsed, says an official at State. "But you need a serious plan that's doable. The question is how many lives and resources you have to risk." Powell's unwillingness to fight any less-than-total war is legendary, and the particulars of launching a covert insurgency among the feuding Iraqi opposition factions would give any general pause. The proposition is still "hypothetical," he told TIME. But plenty of others on the Bush team are gung-ho.
The only real question is how hard it would have been to get it past Congress. But Bush made it clear from day one that he wasn't even willing to entertain letting Congress declare war, precisely because he wanted this to be solely his baby. So I don't imagine it would have mattered; the administration had a pro-executive Supreme Court behind them anyway.