In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, there was some thought that as a nation we would become united as at no time since the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
We would stand together to repel the insidious threats from sources we did not fully understand.
We would reverse the trend in military downsizing and beef up our troops and weapons so that only the foolhardy would dare attack us again.
We would exercise our might militarily, economically and diplomatically throughout the world and re-establish ourselves as the pre-eminent superpower.
We would once again prove to the world that as a nation we are exceptional.
Or so some of us thought 15 years ago. In fact, little of that has actually taken place.
On this 15th anniversary of 9/11, it is clear we have changed as a nation. The question is: Have we changed for the better?
Here are a few thoughts about some of the things that have changed in America since 9/11.
Call it unity, or patriotism, or national pride, but whatever that feeling was that pulled us together after 9/11 has long since vanished.
Instead of being a more unified nation we are, if anything, more divided than at any time since the 1960s — which, if you didn’t live through them, are difficult for those of us who did to put into words so others can understand the racial and political animosity that rent the country during those turbulent years.
We are divided racially, economically and politically to a degree that I find remarkable, if not a bit frightening. Instead of seeking common ground, we seem to look for ways to denigrate and demean those who do not think exactly as we do.
Instead of talking face-to-face, we hide behind the anonymity that Twitter and Facebook and other social media provide and spew vituperation for the entire world to see and hear.
We have become our own worst enemy because of our inability to rationally and reasonably resolve our differences.
Our sense of security
In the post-9/11 era, we have become a nation of cowerers. That is not to say we are a nation of cowards, for there are still many willing to join the military or become first responders and put their own lives at risk for others.
But a large portion of our population is cowed by the uncertainty of what the future holds for them and their families, and has adopted what some might refer to as a “bunker mentality.”
Students demand “safe spaces” on campus where they can go hide from the vicissitudes of the world while others demand segregated housing to avoid what they perceive to be “micro-aggressions.”
We have become more intolerant of those we perceive to be not like us and regard them not only with suspicion, but often with downright hostility.
Yet even as we close the door to bunker and turn out the lights, we continue to allow federal and local governments to dig deeper into our lives and our affairs, mistakenly thinking that we have nothing to worry about if we’ve done nothing wrong.
The changes that government instituted after 9/11 included the creation or reorganization of more than 263 federal government agencies, most of which have been largely for cosmetic purposes.
Among them was the Transportation Security Administration. Do you feel safer because you have to take your shoes off at the airport? Do you feel safer knowing that the TSA has never stopped a terrorist attack and regularly fails tests to find planted fake weapons and explosives?
A friend who is a prior service Marine and spent a career with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives as an explosives expert applied for a job with the TSA shortly after he retired. He was told he was overqualified. He went on to work security for the U.S. State Department overseas but his experience always makes me think about the line that TSA really means “Too Stupid for Arby’s.”
Despite a brief surge in enlistments and an increase in active duty troops to 570,000 for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military under President Barack Obama continues to shrink as it did when Bill Clinton was commander in chief.
Current plans call for the active duty troops to be cut by 40,000 by next year, leaving a force of 450,000, the lowest level since World War II. Proponents of these cuts cite the 2011 Budget Control Act, which called for severe cuts in military spending.
Without changes to this act, active duty forces are likely to be cut again to 420,000 by 2019, at which point the military will be in a tenuous situation if it had to fight a large-scale conventional war while carrying on the so-called “war on terror.” And forget fighting a war on two fronts as we did during World War II and for which the Pentagon has been planning for years.
While all this is going on Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to build up his military and has become a significant threat not only Eastern Europe but now the Middle East with the intervention in Syria. And then there are the continuing potential threats from China and North Korea.
So much for the bigger stronger military envisioned after 9/11.
Our place in the world
I am hesitant to say that our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been failures because of the more than 4,400 Americans and tens of thousands — if not hundreds of thousands — of Iraqis and Afghan civilians who died in those two countries.
But there have been failures in aspects of both wars that could have made them much more successful and given the U.S. a position of power not only in those countries, but in the Middle East and Southwest Asia.
President George W. Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld first diverted resources from Afghanistan to Iraq and then failed to provide sufficient troop strength in Iraq to bring a quick and decisive end to the fighting.
Once Baghdad fell, Bush and Rumsfeld decided to fire the entire Iraqi army instead of reconstituting it under U.S. control. That gave rise to the Sunni insurgency because most of the officers were Sunni. That insurgency led eventually to the Islamic State.
Then there was the failure by the Obama administration to successfully renegotiate a Status of Forces Agreement in 2011 that would have permitted U.S. forces to stay in Iraq to train and fight with the Iraqi army against the Sunni insurgency. That raises the unanswerable question of whether the Islamic State would even had arisen had there not been a Sunni insurgency or whether it could have been quelled early on.
Meanwhile, our standing in the world has been reduced to that of wannabe superpower.
Obama’s red line in Syria quickly disappeared. His silence on Crimea and Ukraine was deafening. Iran and the nuclear agreement is just what the mullahs wanted.
And the government that doesn’t pay ransom for hostages just paid $400 million to Iran for hostages, even though it refuses to admit it.
We are not the nation we were before 9/11.
But I see no signs that we are a better nation.
Ron Martz is a Marine Corps veteran (1965-68), journalist and former educator. He lives in Northeast Georgia and writes a monthly commentary for the Sunday Viewpoint page.