Sept. 11, 2001, wasn't just a day, it was the beginning of an era. Now it is time to close that chapter and put it behind us so America can move forward and heal as a nation.
What started as a justified response became a descent into darkness, as we lost our way as a nation. From surrendering our privacy with the Patriot Act to our use of “enhanced interrogation” techniques, to abandoning our allies in the final moments of the war, history will not look kindly upon the course our nation chose to take.
The path to America's longest war was forged in anger, pain and a desire for vengeance in response to the worst attack on American soil in history. We were justified in our anger, but we let it consume us.
It was understandable to be scared after the collective trauma we endured, and to want to prevent it from happening again. But anger and fear do not foster strong relationships; they foster explosive ones.
Within 24 hours of the attack, Old Glory hung from every light post and front step in America. In that moment, our flag transitioned from a symbol of America to an idol we wrapped around beer cans, turned into clothing and slapped on everything from sneakers to tattoos.
A week after the attacks, Congress passed an Authorization of Use of Military Force without a declared enemy or a clearly defined mission, and only a single vote went against it. We abandoned the responsibility of meaningful debate and followed our emotions, diving headlong into America’s longest war.
Two days later, on Sept. 20, President George W. Bush put the world on notice, declaring, "Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists." He set the tone, which has torn us apart for the past 20 years. Today, this with-us-or-against-us attitude permeates every facet of American life from politics to medicine.
A nationalistic fervor boiled under the surface, disguised as patriotism. If you were not an unquestioning supporter of our righteous crusade, then you were unpatriotic and un-American. We renamed foods — like freedom fries — and condemned artists like the Dixie Chicks for speaking out against America's escalating response and mission creep.
In the weeks and months immediately following the attacks, our populace wasn’t recruited to support the war effort. Instead, our president told the people to go shopping and visit Disney World because if we didn’t, the terrorists would win.
Within a month, America had launched Operation Enduring Freedom to stop the Taliban from providing a safe haven to al-Qaeda and to stop al-Qaeda's use of Afghanistan as a base for terrorist activities. And we were successful.
Within two months, in November, 1,000 American Special Operators and various intelligence agencies had successfully deposed the Taliban regime. America could have left Afghanistan then, but we didn't.
By December, Osama bin Laden had been chased out of Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda was shattered and dispersed. Again, America could have left Afghanistan, but we didn't.
By mid-April 2002, America had installed a "transitional government" in Afghanistan to replace the Taliban. And once again, America could have left Afghanistan then, but we didn't.
Instead of calling the mission a success and coming home, America was consumed with fear of another attack, leading us into opening a second front in Iraq in the global war on terror.
And that was the moment when we lost the war in Afghanistan. We just didn’t know it yet.
America had countless opportunities to exit the war in Afghanistan, and we didn’t. The Bush, Obama and Trump administrations all kicked the can down the road.
Our boots on the ground continued to achieve mission objectives, handed to them by the suits in Washington and Europe. From overthrowing the Taliban to evacuating more than 150,000 souls from Kabul in the waning days of the conflict, the boots were successful, but the suits continued to shift the mission, never formulating a plan to leave.
That failure to plan a strategic exit was put on full display this summer as Afghanistan returned to Taliban control, and chaos reigned supreme.
As America finally comes home, it is imperative that we reflect on how we got here, to ensure we never send our sons and daughters to fight an endless war again.
Our mission was justified. Our response was warranted. Our initial goals were achieved more than a decade ago. Yet we stayed and endured a loss in the end because we never held our government accountable.
In the years ahead, I hope and pray that America will return to a land of reason and compromise. Only then will we regain what was lost on that fateful September day.
Ray Gilmore lives in Bartlett.