Were the 9/11 attacks that left almost 3,000 civilians dead an act of war or a criminal act?
If you said an act of war, you probably would compare 9/11 to the Pearl Harbor attack as an unprovoked, surprise attack on the United States that was appropriately met with a declaration of war by the Congress.
But let’s consider for a moment the differences between the Pearl Harbor attack and the attacks of 9/11. First of all, the 9/11 attacks were not on military assets as was the Pearl Harbor attack (principally on the naval yard in Hawaii and the ships anchored there). Second, the 9/11 casualties were almost all civilians (save for a relatively small number of military personnel killed by the jet that flew into the Pentagon). The Pearl Harbor casualties, many of whom literally went down with their ships, were almost all uniformed military personnel.
But the third major difference between the two events is perhaps the most significant, and it justifies more thoughtful consideration of the question. The Pearl Harbor attack was initiated by a foreign government in an effort to preemptively defeat the United States military. The 9/11 attacks were carried out by a band of Islamic fundamentalists who were working for a radical terrorist group that has no nationalistic allegiance.
And that difference marks the fourth major distinction in the two events. Pearl Harbor caused the United States to go to war against Japan. The 9/11 attacks caused it to declare war on terrorism, generally, and on al Qaeda, specifically. In the war against Japan, the United States was committed to defeating the Japanese government. In the war on terrorism, the United States is committed to defeating a stateless entity that, since the attacks, has morphed from one radical Islamic group into at least a half-dozen or more, all of them operating without any allegiance to a state government and without any regard for the land where they are headquartered, other than that it presumably gives them some sense of safe haven (in most cases notwithstanding the at least tacit opposition of the government of those countries).
All of which brings us to the fifth major difference. The war following Pearl Harbor ended with the surrender of the Japanese government. The current war, while the United States has declared it will disengage from Afghanistan next year, will not end with a surrender by any government or, even, by a formal acknowledgement of defeat by the agents of terrorism, be they the collective sects of al Qaeda or some other entities.
Now let’s return to the original question. Were the 9/11 attacks really an act of war? Based on the foregoing comparison with World War II, the answer must be a resounding no. And that same answer would follow from the comparison to any other war fought by the United States since its founding and by any other nation since the dawn of the human race.
Wars have always been defined as military engagements between countries that are represented by formal governments. Actions by individuals against other individuals or against a large group of individuals have always been considered to be crimes. But in choosing to regard the 9/11 attacks as an act of war and not a criminal act, then-president Bush created a new definition of war, and that definition, even though never formally stated, has been implicitly accepted by political, military, and foreign policy professionals and by the citizenry of the country they represent.
The result is a new kind of war, one that seeks not to defeat an enemy so much as it seeks to keep the homeland safe from the attacks that are epitomized by those of 9/11. And, since this kind of war will never actually be “won” (if by that word we mean the formal acknowledgement by the enemy of its defeat), then the tactics in waging it might well be different.
And, indeed, they are, as last week’s Senate committee testimony by John Brennan confirmed. Mr. Brennan, President Obama’s nominee to be the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, was peppered with questions during his testimony about whether the CIA should be engaged in military actions. The questions related directly to the use of drones in lethal missile attacks on targeted terrorist leaders, even if they are United States citizens, as was Anwar Awlaki, the Muslim cleric and alleged confederate of al Qaeda. Awlaki was killed in 2011 by a Hellfire missile fired from a drone aircraft operated by the CIA in Yemen.
Brennan addressed the question of whether drones (which are pilotless robot aircraft) should be used to effectuate military attacks. His answer was revealing of the new tactics employed by the United States in the new kind of war that it is now engaged in.
“We face threats from terrorist organizations,” he said, alluding to al Qaeda specifically, but leaving open the possibility that the war on terrorism could be waged against other terrorist groups as well. “We confront those threats,” he went on, “using a variety of diplomatic, economic, homeland security, law enforcement, intelligence and military authorities and tools.” That last word clearly refers to drones.
So, what’s the issue? Drones kill civilians as well as the intended “military targets” (Awlaki’s family is suing the government for wrongful death, as his 16-year-old son was also killed in the 2011 drone attack), but so do bombs dropped from planes piloted by real humans. Drones can kill Americans who are engaged with the “enemy,” but so would missiles used against uniformed enemies who are American citizens in a traditional war if they fight against their country.
In fact, drones probably inflict less “collateral damage” than traditional bombing raids did in past wars. They are the new weapon for the new war that the United States has declared on the new enemy in the new conflict against terrorism.
We gave up the moral imperative when we rejected “criminal act” in answer to the question I posed at the outset. It’s hardly the first time in our history that we have done so.