No single factor determines the impact of violent extremists’ actions more than the reaction and response they trigger. And nothing illustrates this so well as the degree to which America’s leaders—political, military and in the media—played into the hands of al Qaeda and amplified the impact of its attacks to a degree they could not have imagined would be possible.
While the first part of Osama bin Laden’s plans were carried out by the 19 hijackers, the greatest damage done came as a result of the unwitting partnership between George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Fox News, the U.S. military, the defense establishment and thousands of others American influencers and decision-makers and the al Qaeda leader and his treacherous followers.
This is not blaming the victim. Al Qaeda is responsible for the horror of that day and the profound pain and suffering it caused. But in the wake of those attacks, the United States had a choice as to how we would respond. We could choose a response that was targeted, proportional and focused on depleting the capabilities of the attackers while strengthening our own defenses. Or we could choose a path that elevated the attackers, overstated their capabilities, depleted our resources, weakened our alliances, undermined our standing in the world and caused us to betray our most fundamental values thereby, in every respect, supporting the terrorists’ narratives and, even as they sustained losses, strengthening their cause. Over time, we chose the latter.