The media fear-mongering after the September 11 attacks allowed the Bush administration to march America off into two wars that did nothing for its security.
Al Qaeda would be irrelevant except for American paranoia
As America enters a week of reflection on the tenth anniversary of September 11, its media and political elites have yet to properly explain that day's events to the public, or offer an honest reckoning with the debacle that followed. And that failure to learn the lessons of the recent past leaves the United States ever vulnerable to new self-inflicted wounds.
Close to 3,000 Americans were killed in a series of coordinated hijack-suicide bombings by a small transnational network of Islamist extremists. The gruesome purpose of that carefully staged media spectacle was to amplify the significance of Al Qaeda thousands of times beyond its actual power in the Muslim world, and it worked: mediated through real-time television and the responses of US leadership, September 11 turned Osama bin Laden's diminutive network, in the minds of a fearful American imaginations, into a menacing juggernaut.
The climate of media-fuelled fear after the attacks allowed an imperially minded extremist element in the Bush administration to march America off into two wars that did nothing for America's security, but have already cost the lives of more than twice as many Americans as died on September 11, as well as killing hundreds of thousands of Afghans and Iraqis, and accelerating US economic decline by adding more than $1 trillion (Dh3.7 trillion) to its fiscal burden even as the Bush administration handed trillions of dollars of tax revenues back to the wealthiest Americans.
The demagoguery of Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld and Condoleeza Rice prevailed because US political and media elites lacked the courage to challenge the fundamental assumptions behind the march of folly - the idea that America's survival was threatened by some foreign power, and that the only acceptable response was an expeditionary war against all who would challenge its writ in the region from which the attackers hailed.
As former Clinton administration official David Rothkopf recently wrote:"We spoke of 9/11 as though it were somehow equivalent to Pearl Harbor ... We reorganised our entire security establishment to go after a few thousand bad guys. We went mad."
Al Qaeda was never anything more than a tiny fringe element operating at the margins of Arab societies (and of Muslim communities in Asia and Europe), but in the media-fuelled nightmares of post-September 11 America, it grew into a mortal threat akin to the erstwhile portrayal of Soviet communism in an US imagination that always painted its adversaries as 10-feet tall - the sort of media culture that took seriously the idea that Saddam Hussein might bomb the US mainland using pilotless drones. Even such supposedly sober titles as The New York Times told Americans that the question was not if, but when the city would be struck by a nuclear weapon.
The Muslim world's response to the attacks actually highlighted the fundamental flaw of Al Qaeda's strategy: it failed to ignite the intended jihadist insurrection in a single Muslim country. (Although such an uprising did, arguably, occur in Pakistan several years later, that came in response to US actions in neighbouring Afghanistan rather than to Al Qaeda's September 11 call to arms.) And when a generalised rebellion against US-backed Arab autocracies finally occurred a decade after September 11, it was clear to all that Al Qaeda was a marginal phenomenon. The killing of bin Laden in Pakistan last spring was greeted with a collective shrug around the Arab world.
What Washington had failed to understand about September 11 was its own relationship with the Arab world. The overwhelming majority of Arabs reviled Al Qaeda's terrorist methods and extremist ideology, which is why so many fell prey to conspiracy theories that insisted the 2001 attacks must have been the work of the Mossad or the CIA - most Arabs simply could not take pride in those attacks. But that same majority would not dispute bin Laden's characterisation of the US as a predatory imperial power whose interventions and allegiances made it an obstacle to justice and dignity for Arab citizens.
And in the decade that followed September 11, the US pursued policies in Afghanistan and Iraq - and also in Israel-Palestine and elsewhere in the Middle East - that deepened Arab hostility towards the US. The revelation last week that Col Muammar Qaddafi's regime had - like that of Hosni Mubarak and Hafez Al Assad - taken on some of the CIA's outsourced dirty work during the "war on terror" will surprise few in the Arab world.
Washington's ambiguous response to the Arab democracy rebellion earlier this year has not exactly broken the mould of its self-serving approach to the Middle East, while indulging the recklessness of the most right-wing government in Israel's history confirms a sense of its contempt for the Arab public. The same crowd in Washington that pressed hardest for an Iraq invasion are trying to use the same American fears of the post-September 11 moment to generate public support for a US attack on Iran. Some of their more rabid ideological allies insist that America is being targeted for a stealth takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood. And the US media doesn't always rise to the challenge of ensuring a serious national conversation about the Middle East.
Ten years after September 11, US influence in the Middle East is at its lowest ebb since the Second World War. The strategic setbacks, however, are largely as a result of the self-inflicted wounds - Afghanistan, Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, unconditional backing for anything Israel does and more - that followed the attacks on New York and Washington. And until America's politicians and media are prepared to tell their public that Americans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan died for the mistakes of their political leadership, they will remain ever at risk of repeating the tragedy.
Tony Karon is an analyst based in New York. Follow him on Twitter @tonkykaron