The US response to 9/11 killed millions, destabilized an entire region, and led to more American deaths than the original attacks. Israel is rushing down the same path.

Smoke billows during Israeli air strikes in Gaza City on October 12, 2023, as raging battles between Israel and the Hamas movement continue for the sixth consecutive day. (Majdi Fathi / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

“This is our 9/11. We are committed to change the equation, to shatter the old paradigm.”

These words from the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations were among the earliest in a flood of statements around the world since Hamas’s horrific attack this past weekend comparing the assault to Al Qaeda’s September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center.

“Israel Faces Its 9/11,” read a Wall Street Journal headline the day of the attacks, the accompanying op-ed exalting the “moral clarity and resolve that characterizes democracies under attack” that the writer was witnessing in Israel. Many Israelis drew the same parallel as the dust cleared from the killings.

Analysts like Eurasia Group’s Ian Bremmer and former director of national intelligence James Clapper have likewise made the comparison, as has hawkish California Democrat Adam Schiff. Across the Atlantic, when former Jeremy Corbyn advisor James Schneider pointed out that Israel’s partners were tacitly complicit in the war crimes being committed by Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in retaliation to Hamas’s attacks, the GB News presenter responded that “all the responses to 9/11 [were] immoral, illegal, by that reasoning.”

Sure enough, there are countless parallels. There’s the appalling loss of civilian life, of course, in both cases at the hands of extremist groups that blindsided the public (and benefited from severe intelligence failures). In each case, unconfirmed reports and half-truths spread like wildfire in the ensuing climate of fear and rage. After September 11, there were rumors of imminent additional bombings and stories of Muslims and even Israelis celebrating as the Twin Towers fell, alongside a host of bizarre urban legends. In the wake of the October 7 attacks, mainstream media and politicians, including the president of the United States, spread still-unsubstantiated stories of Hamas fighters raping women and beheading babies, as if the terrible crimes they were confirmed to have committed weren’t horrifying enough.

The towers were still smoldering rubble when accusations began flying about which adversarial governments were responsible, all of them conveniently pointing away from the one, nominally friendly country where almost all the hijackers hailed from, and whose government it would turn out really was involved in the attack. Likewise, following this weekend’s violence, an early report claimed that the Iranian government was involved in the Hamas operation, only to be disputed by other reporting since.

And both attacks have been followed by a combination of an outpouring of global sympathy and a rally-round-the-flag effect, with a right-wing leader in each instance seizing on the respective attacks to give his tenure a shot in the arm. In a strange twist that will no doubt be fodder for sociologists, the jingoism triggered by Hamas’s attacks is at times more pronounced in the United States and some of its partner countries than in Israel itself.

But this is where the comparison becomes deeply worrying. Because if the far-right Benjamin Netanyahu government co-opts Israelis’ grief the way George W. Bush and his team of neocons did with the American people, and if Netanyahu embarks on a policy response that is even remotely similar to the “war on terror” that Bush launched as smoke billowed from the ruins in Manhattan, then this weekend’s human tragedy will become one far, far bigger in scale — and Israeli civilians will be dealing with years, if not decades, of violent blowback.

The Post-9/11 Wars

Let’s think back to what happened after 9/11. In the immediate aftermath, there was an explosion of truly scary hatred and xenophobia. This hatred manifested itself on the personal level in hate crimes against Muslim Americans or people who simply appeared to be Muslim or Arab, and on the policy level, in the rounding up, detention, and deportation of hundreds of immigrants. The US security and surveillance states ballooned to new, menacing heights, and began more and more to be turned on the very US citizens they were, in theory, meant to protect — spying on law-abiding dissidents and entrapping poor and often mentally ill men in terrorism plots that US security agents were largely responsible for crafting.

President George W. Bush, with Naval flight officer Lieutenant Ryan Philips, prior to his Mission Accomplished speech, May 1, 2003. (Wikimedia Commons)

Bush then put into place a global network of torture dungeons underwritten by a policy of worldwide “rendition” (i.e., kidnapping) that was flagrantly illegal. Innocent men were ensnared in this program, snatched off the streets of foreign countries, their lives ruined thanks to cases of mistaken identity. More than twenty years later, the jewel in this repugnant crown — the prison at Guantanamo Bay — still stands, containing thirty inmates, with only eighteen of the 779 people ever held there actually charged with a crime, and only five convicted.

And this wasn’t the worst of it. The reality is that the “moral clarity and resolve” the Wall Street Journal recently celebrated led, in practice, to the United States embarking on a reckless trail of planetary destruction that only decades later shows any signs of slowing.

In an act of extraordinary cynicism, Bush and his partners in crime took advantage of the world’s grief and sympathy and determined, in then-UK prime minister Tony Blair’s words, that “now that the world is in a state of shock” is when “it can be co-opted most easily.” The purpose of this co-optation was to justify two separate ground invasions of countries that ultimately had no role in the attacks, but had long been on the US hit list, allegedly meant to be only the first of a series of regime-change wars around the region. When those invasions proved unsuccessful and unpopular, the US government eventually cast its chips with a program of drone bombings and special forces strikes that together killed thousands of civilians.

The resulting human toll has been staggering: in response to the deaths of nearly three-thousand people on September 11, the US government caused the deaths of some 4.5 million people through its intervention in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen alone, as well as displacing up to 59 million others. The staggering death toll was not just the result of US troops killing people, but the destabilizing ripple effects of regime change and war — such as the emergence of the vicious Islamic State, better known as ISIS, an outgrowth of Bush’s toppling of Saddam Hussein, which cut a swath of terror across vast stretches of the Middle East long after the war was over, bringing yet more US military interventions in a vicious circle that continues today.

In an act of extraordinary cynicism, Bush and his partners in crime took advantage of the world’s grief and sympathy.

For a long time after 9/11, the march to war was carried out with minimal debate or forethought about the possible consequences. In fact, more often than not, anyone suggesting caution or restraint or who questioned the wisdom of a militarized reaction was shouted down and drowned out in the prevailing climate of jingoism that evolved from — and was, by some, deliberately stoked using — the nation’s pain and sorrow.

This all proved to be a disaster not just for those unlucky enough to live in the countries the US military attacked, but for the United States itself. The 9/11 wars wound up costing a breathtaking $8 trillion, exploding the country’s fiscal deficits and directly fostering the near-constant debt-driven government shutdowns, austerity pushes, and general political dysfunction that’s now close to a structural element of the US political system. The enormous military burden continues to suck up a large share of the US budget, siphoning away wealth that should be reinvested in struggling American towns and cities and used to deal with the country’s myriad crises, and putting it instead in the hands of often-wasteful military contractors.

Meanwhile, between US troops, contractors, and civilians working for the Pentagon, more than fifteen thousand Americans died fighting those pointless wars, meaning that roughly five times more Americans were killed thanks to the response to September 11 than the attack itself. Many more were left horrifically wounded, while more than thirty-thousand took their own lives in the years that followed, unable to deal with the mental scars these wars had marked them with. If Israel’s response to the Hamas attacks even remotely resembles this, then we can only pray for the Israeli people.

For a long time after 9/11, the march to war was carried out with minimal debate or forethought about the possible consequences.

The knock-on effects of this human carnage on the US side went deep. There is strong evidence that resentment at the war’s costs at home was one of the deciding factors that cost Hillary Clinton the 2016 election and put Donald Trump, who paid lip service to criticizing Bush’s September 11 response, in power. Veterans of the post–September 11 wars ended up forming a large cohort of those who stormed the Capitol in January 2021 to overturn the election result. Beyond that, a massive security bureaucracy grew out of the attacks, increasingly targeting, surveilling, and cracking down on innocent Americans who happen to dissent.

Yet it was all for nothing. None of this violence ended anti-American terrorism or made Americans more safe — the opposite actually, since US politicians and media made a concerted effort to hide the motivations of the terrorists from the public, assuring them that they were purely driven by irrational hatred of American “freedoms” and decadence — even though, privately, the United States and other governments recognized that anti-American terrorists “hate our policies.” So terrorists continued carrying out attack after attack after attack, each time explaining that they were driven by resentment at destructive US foreign policy in the Middle East, each time responded to with more military force, feeding a vicious cycle that ensured more and more American lives would be threatened and lost.

Avoiding Disaster

In other words, the US response to September 11 was disastrous for just about everything good and decent: for the security and well-being of ordinary Americans themselves, for the health of American democracy, for international law, for racial justice, and not to mention for the millions of innocent foreigners forced to bear the violence of an enraged military power through no fault of their own.

In many ways, Israeli policy has for years mirrored this US trajectory, from an upsurge in bigoted views at home and rising right-wing and antidemocratic extremism to growing militarism, employment of torture and other repression, and use of plainly illegal military aggression abroad. But if it takes the post–September 11 policy as its model — and if the US government and other states lend their support to this approach — it could get much, much worse.

There are already grim signs. Overnight, Netanyahu warned one million Gazans in the north to evacuate, which many are taking as a signal of an impending ground invasion. Netanyahu seems to be trying to widen the war to include his long-standing nemeses, placing blame on Iran for the attacks, bombing Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, and reportedly striking Syria.

Israeli officials’ rhetoric right now is suffused with the language of violent vengeance, disproportionality, war crimes, and racism. And Netanyahu and his backers, in concert with US officials and the media, are insisting that the violence the country has suffered has absolutely nothing to do with their government’s treatment of Palestinians, but is purely “driven by genocidal racism against Jews,” as one US-based pro-Israel group put it.

If Israel treats this attack as its September 11, and models its response on Bush’s post-9/11 policy, the country is hurtling down a disastrous path that will not only mean the deaths of many innocents abroad, but that the Israeli people themselves will not know peace or security for decades to come. The United States, too, had much of the world’s sympathy and support after September 11, but it squandered and in fact engineered a wholesale reversal of its global standing with its cataclysmic reaction.

What’s desperately needed at the moment are voices of reason in positions of power and influence around the world to gently step in and save the Israeli leadership from themselves. But it’s an open question if any exist right now.

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