None of us will ever forget where we were and what we were doing that fateful morning eight years ago today, when the hijacked airliners flew into the World Trade Center towers in Manhattan. I was just leaving the house for work when my wife called out for me to come back inside. The first plane had just struck its target, and for a moment we didn't know if it was an accident. All doubts disappeared seconds later when we saw, live on television, the second tower struck by another plane. In that amazing moment we knew that life would never again be quite the same. Then came the third attack, the one on the Pentagon - and the worries about what was next.
Who can forget the befuddled look on the face of President George W. Bush when, while reading from the book "The Pet Goat" to schoolchildren in a Florida classroom, he was informed what had happened? "Truthers" insist that the Sept. 11 attacks were an inside job - that the president and his people at the very least had knowledge of them beforehand - but the look on Mr. Bush's face said otherwise. He appeared to be the most surprised person on the planet.
Osama bin Laden and his brain trust had specific goals as to what they wanted to accomplish in this attack on America. They anticipated that the United States would invade Afghanistan and become involved in a long war there, one that would prove extremely costly. But the decision by the president to use Sept. 11 as a reason for invading Iraq as well must have been an unexpected bonus to the al-Qaeda leaders.
In his book, "Imperial Hubris: Why The West Is Losing The War on Terror," former CIA analyst Michael Scheuer called the invasion of Iraq "the hoped for but never expected gift." It ratcheted up the war costs incredibly and in the process toppled the secular regime of Saddam Hussein, a hated enemy of the jihadists. It made Iraq into what is called a failed state - a place similar to Afghanistan and thus a fertile ground for the breeding of ever more jihadists. It also deepened anti-American sentiment among millions of Muslims already angered by the sanctions against Mr. Hussein's regime that resulted in hundreds of thousands of Iraqi deaths even before the American invasion.
Recall that in a 2004 videotape aired on the Arabic language network Al-Jazeera, Mr. bin Laden talked about his group forcing America into bankruptcy. Referring to a British estimate that it cost about a half million dollars to stage the Sept. 11 attacks, he said, "Every dollar of al-Qaeda defeated a million dollars, by the permission of Allah, besides the loss of a huge number of jobs. As for the [American] economic deficit, it has reached record astronomical numbers estimated to total more than a trillion dollars." The bin Laden estimate was exaggerated five years ago, but the federal deficit is now projected to approach $1.75 trillion for fiscal 2009 and a cumulative $9 trillion over the next decade.
The winners in the eight years of struggle that we are told is just the beginning of "the long war" certainly include the massive American military machine and its host of providers, which are profiting mightily. War means more money for the Pentagon and its contractors. "War is a racket," Marine Gen. Smedley Butler famously observed decades ago. True then, true now.
It will be some time before the ultimate winners and losers of the so-called war on terror are sorted out. But so far at least, it's not us. It's not the American people who are winners, and it's certainly not the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. Wars aren't fought for the benefit of ordinary people, but for the aims of rulers acting in their name.
Truth is, eight years on, when it comes to the wars in Eurasia, the stated goals of Osama bin Laden seem a lot closer to being met than those of our own leaders, which have never been made clear.
Ron Smith can be heard weekdays, 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., on 1090 WBAL-AM and WBAL.com. His column appears Fridays in The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.