The Long Emergency: Living in the Shadow of 9/11

“The world has changed, and we’re not going back to where we were. I find one of the sillier ideas — and you hear it all the time — is the notion that American policy has been ‘hijacked’ by a handful of people, and as soon as they’re out of there, we’re going to go back to the way it was. They’re wrong about that, because we are not the same people we were before.”

— Richard Perle, Chairman of the Defense Policy Board 2001-2003

Today is Tuesday, and we are at war. For the last 4,000 days, America has awoken to this grim reality, and for 6,607 American soldiers, it has meant their death. For eleven years, from Afghanistan to Iraq, Uganda to Somalia, Pakistan to the Philippines, Libya to Yemen, Aden to Sahara, Colombia to Guatemala, US military and intelligence forces have been engaged on a truly global front.

Though these facts are now so commonplace as to be invisible, they represent fundamental changes to the American experience and to our role in the world. The post-Soviet prospect of lasting peace through the rise of democracy and globalization has given way to a new policy of constant warfare. Instead of bringing about the “end of history,” the new American century been one long crisis.

The attacks of September 11 brought about a dramatic shift in our priorities, expectations, and willingness to tolerate extreme measures. The events of that day swept away the presumption that peace, though sometimes interrupted by exigent circumstances, was the normal state of the republic. As the Twin Towers fell, we watched that hope disappear in an explosion of glass, metal, and flame.

In retrospect, it’s not hard to understand. Planes were falling out of the sky, buildings were being blown up, and everyone was a target. There’s a threat we can’t measure, and an enemy we can’t see. They can strike our homeland, but they have none of their own. With so much chaos and uncertainty, overreaction was almost inevitable.

In this state of fear, Congress granted the president broad authority to use the military to counter the threat of terrorism. As a result, every day became exigent circumstances, every country became a battlefield, and this paradigm was enshrined in policy. Whether called a “Global War on Terror” or “Overseas Contingency Operations,” this century has been a perpetual battle, an endless conflict, a long emergency.

In post-9/11 America, we have an increasingly huge defense apparatus that is increasingly offensive in nature. The new purpose of our military is to machine third world dictatorships into secular democracies. Our armed forces are to be engaged, for the foreseeable future, in a global theater, on every battlefield, in any country. We have assumed moral responsibility for the behavior of every regime, the protection of every population, and the outcome of every struggle.

Drones bomb remote bases; Special Forces assassinate terror suspects; the Army topples dictators; the CIA funds rebel coups; the Air Force enforces no-fly zones; the Marines raid failed states; the Navy patrols distant seas; the DEA razes fields in far-off jungles.

Spies infiltrate other countries, drug suspects, and render them to secret prisons for interrogation. Our soldiers patrol foreign cities, rounding up thousands of suspected insurgents and corralling them into large detention centers. Bases have been constructed throughout the Middle East and Central Asia, and a globe-straddling armada projects force onto every shoreline.

The new raison d’être for our armed forces is not merely defending the United States, but managing a worldwide protectorate, exterminating international criminals, and ousting rogue leaders. Its goal is to act, not deter; to preempt, not retaliate; to engage, not idle. The mission is open-ended, and as a result, war has become an institution. The emergency has become permanent.

In a very real sense, we have rejected the promise of the World Trade Center, and its hope of a better world, united by trade and connected by travel. Peace is considered a Utopian ideal, a luxury of the naïve and decadent past. There is no end in sight, no exit strategy, and no plan to reduce the size or scope of the military. We have bound ourselves to a generational commitment to police the world.

My children will have no idea what the Twin Towers were, the way they dominated the New York skyline and towered over New Jersey or what they represented, the dream of peace and prosperity through commerce. But more importantly, they will have no idea what it means to live in a world without war.

When we first embarked on this project, we did not consider what its conclusion might be. We had to do something. But eleven years on, with the military spread around the globe, our nation drowning in debt, and thousands of young Americans killed, it’s time to consider the kind of tomorrow we are carving out for our posterity.

Today is Tuesday, and after a decade of the War on Terror, the long-run is here. Tell me how this ends.