20 Years After 9/11: Rights-Based Policies for a New Era


On September 11th, 2001, nineteen members of Al Qaeda used hijacked airplanes to murder almost three thousand people. Twenty years later, we are still living in the post-9/11 world.

Shortly after the attacks, the U.S. government launched a war of unlimited geographic scope against an ill-defined and ever-evolving enemy. It has pervaded our political system, extending far beyond the realm of national security policy.

In the hands of short-sighted or opportunistic politicians, fighting “terror” is a catchall pretext to not only torture prisoners or shoot hellfire missiles at men of a certain profile but also to deny protection to refugees or crackdown on activists protesting police violence.

The premise of these policies is that respect for human rights weakens national security. Two decades on, the verdict on this approach is in. It has destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives, consumed trillions of dollars, flouted national and international laws, shipped billions in weapons to repressive regimes, provided succor to despots, alienated allies, trashed this country’s reputation in many parts of the world fueled conflicts and massive human displacement, contributed to militarized and violent policing in the United States, diverted resources from other national priorities, and allowed Al Qaeda and its offshoots to flourish. All this before the trial of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of 9-11, has even started.

Unless the goal of this effort was to expand the military footprint of the United States and restrict civil rights, it is an abject failure.

Since 2001, Human Rights First has been at the forefront of the pushback. Guided by our conviction that the best national security policies are those that respect human rights, we have not ceded an inch of “tough on terror” turf to those advocating manifestly disastrous policies.

After the sadistic abuse at Abu Ghraib came to light in 2005, we assembled a coalition of retired generals and admirals who changed the national debate on torture. “I never thought I’d live to see the day when a group of generals was working closely with a human rights group,” remarked then-Vice President Joe Biden.

While the partnership was unusual, it was also neutral. With their authority on national security, the generals and admirals provided counsel to political leaders. They were literally standing behind President Obama when he signed an executive order banning torture.

We then helped secure passage of the 2015 McCain-Feinstein amendment, the strongest anti-torture law in American history. When President Trump floated the idea of reinstating torture, senators of both parties cited the statute to shut him down.

Working alongside the military coalition and allied organizations, we have made progress on other fronts. Notably, we took on the moral and strategic failure of indefinite incarceration at the prison in Guantanamo Bay, and today the population at the prison has been reduced to thirty-nine from nearly eight hundred. Our work also helped lead the U.S. government to enact enhanced reporting requirements for civilian casualties and reforms to the legal and policy framework governing the use of military force.

In addition, our many years as a leader on refugee protection has put us in a position to challenge nativist demagogues. During the Obama presidency, for instance, when member of Congress cited the threat of ISIS to try to block refugees, we mobilized a bipartisan group of foreign policy leaders for an advocacy campaign that pointed out that such a restrictive approach dovetailed with ISIS propaganda depicting the United States as hostile to Muslims. In President Obama’s final year, we secured a dramatic increase in refugee resettlement.

Still, in many respects, the war on terrorism is alive and unwell. The United States continues to apply war-time rules to the use of lethal force, detentions, and prosecutions far beyond the traditional boundaries. Rules designed to set limits except for extraordinary circumstances have been bent; war has become a way of life. Even as President Biden withdrew troops from Afghanistan, he reembraced the concept of a “war on terrorism.”

Going forward, we will continue to push Congress and the administration to end “endless” war and place respect for human rights where it belongs: at the heart of U.S. foreign policy. To that end, the U.S. government should, for starters:

  • Repeal the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs and, if necessary, replace the 2001 AUMF with a narrowly tailored authorization
  • Close the prison at Guantanamo
  • End the secret and unaccountable use of lethal force

Human Rights First will also intensify its focus on the war at home. The country’s militarized foreign policy—which has targeted Black, Brown, and Muslim communities around the world—has manifested in domestic policies, programs, and institutions. In particular, immigration enforcement and policing have grown more militarized and repressive, inflicting disproportionate harm on Black, Brown, and Muslim people in the United States. President Trump’s deployment of federal agents against Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists peacefully demonstrating against police brutality showed how the war can turn inward.

The country’s response to 9/11 has led to increased dangers for marginalized communities, and we are redoubling our efforts to fight racism, xenophobia, and anti-Muslim hatred. Our Innovation Lab is creating cutting-edge technological tools to help activists and advocates combat white nationalism and other forms of hatred.

Since the murder of George Floyd, we have also been a leader in the effort to demilitarize of the police. We will keep pushing Congress and the Biden Administration to curtail the Defense Department’s 1033 program by which it transfers military-grade weapons to civilian law enforcement agencies and will work to reform other federal programs that similarly allow police to get their hands on military-grade equipment.

We will also keep challenging the bogus claim that the government needs to block and expel refugees and other immigrants in the name of counterterrorism. President Trump’s so-called “Muslim ban,” which President Biden overturned on his first day in office, was perhaps the purest manifestation of this warped view.

But some of Trump’s other anti-refugee policies remain, and the “War on Terror” has infected the country’s immigration and asylum systems more broadly. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) itself is a product of 9/11, and it has overseen a significant increase in detention and deportation. As we fight for reform, we will continue to make the case both to the public and politicians that the U.S. government can both protect Americans from terrorism and refugees from persecution; indeed, it must do both.

Finally, we will continue to push the U.S. government to fulfill its postwar obligations to the people of Afghanistan. Over the years, through our Veterans for Americans Ideals initiative, we have helped secure extensions and expansions of the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program for Afghans who worked for the U.S. government. But the program was never large enough, as became painfully clear in August as the U.S. military withdrew from that country. Working with allies in Congress and in other organizations, we will continue to bring to safety SIV recipients and other imperiled Afghans. We will also advocate for justice and accountability measures – ranging from fact-finding investigations to targeted sanctions – to hold responsible the perpetrators of past harms, and to mitigate future human rights abuses in Afghanistan.

The result of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, victory by the Taliban, is emblematic of the entire “War on Terror.” Outside of an elite few who have benefited financially or politically, the war has been good for no one. Citizens and soldiers from Kansas to Kirkuk to Kabul have suffered because of it. Yet the war perpetuates itself, creating with its failure a pretext for its own continued existence. It will not end until people who seek a better approach, one rooted in respect for human rights, bring it to an end.

We invite you to join us in this effort.


Published on September 9, 2021


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