The most important foreign policy problem of the 2000s and 2010s has been the War on Terror. It started when al-Qaeda attacked the United States on September 11, 2001, and the War on Terror has been fought in countries on the other side of the world, in classrooms, courts, the Capitol and White House.
It’s not only terrorists from far away that Americans are worried about. Terrorists who come from inside the United States as well. Also, a growing number of mass shootings have been happening, and so has an increase in overall gun violence.
To deal with these dangers we have gone to war in the Middle East, but also started new ways of protecting ourselves at home. We started the Department of Homeland Security and the TSA to protect our airlines. We passed laws that gave the government the power to watch our cell phone data, and then after realizing how much the government was able to spy on us, we took that power away again. Even now, we argue about the balance between the right to own guns for sport and the right to be safe from other people who might attack us.
Thousands of Americans died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we spent trillions of dollars. The thousands of gun deaths at home have not made politicians change any gun laws, or many people change their minds about guns.
For all that we’ve spent, and all we’ve gone through, are we safer? What do you think? Has the War on Terror been worth the cost?
Some Americans are afraid of our own government, especially after trust in the nation’s leaders was ruined during the 1970s by the Watergate and other scandals. Those people had their fears confirmed in the spring of 1993, when federal and state police attacked the compound of a religious group which taught that the end of the world was coming soon. The group called themselves the Branch Davidians and lived near Waco, Texas. The police thought that Branch Davidians were breaking gun laws and some of the members of the group had refused police orders. Police surrounded the building where the Branch Davidians lived for almost two months. The standoff was shown on television news every day. Finally, the police decided to attack the building and arrest the group leaders. As police moved in, 76 men, women, and children died in a fire set by the Branch Davidians themselves. Many others killed themselves.
During the two months leading up to the attack, some people who were afraid of the power of the government came to support the Branch Davidians. One was Timothy McVeigh, a former army soldier. McVeigh had served in Operation Desert Storm in Iraq but after the war he stopped liking the army when the Army Special Forces did not let him join. He thought that the Branch Davidians were victims of government terrorism, and he and his friend Terry Nichols decided to take revenge.
Two years later, McVeigh parked a rented truck full of explosives in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and blew it up. More than 600 people were hurt in the attack and 168 died, including 19 children at a daycare center inside. Charles Porter IV, one of the workers in the building won a Pulitzer Prize for the photo he took of a firefighter holding one of the children who died in the bombing. The photo showed the shock, horror and sadness many Americans felt.
McVeigh thought that bombing a government building would start a revolution, but it did not. He and Nichols were both arrested and put on trial. McVeigh was executed for the worst act of terrorism yet in America. Just a few months later, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, broke that dark record.
Primary Source: Photograph
Charles Porter IV’s photograph of a fireman cradling one of the children killed in the Murrah Federal Building attack captured the shock and horror many Americans felt and won the Pulitzer Prize.
Unlike the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma, the September 11 attacks were carried out by foreigners. The group who planned the attacks was called al-Qaeda, but they were not new. In fact, they had already attacked Americans.
Al-Qaeda was led by Osama bin Laden, a rich man from Saudi Arabia who had gone to Afghanistan in the 1980s to fight against the Soviets. In Bin Laden’s mind, Muslims and were being attacked by Christians from America and Europe. To be clear, almost no Muslims in the world liked bin Laden’s extreme ideas, but he found a few people in the strict government of Afghanistan in the 1990s who helped him and his group. Al-Qaeda decided to attack Americans.
In 1996, bin Laden personally created a plan to kill United States President Bill Clinton while the president was visiting the Philippines. However, spies found out about the plan and told the Secret Service. They found a bomb hidden under a bridge and were able to save Clinton.
On August 7, 1998, al-Qaeda bombed the US embassies in the East African countries of Kenya and Tanzania, killing 224 people, including 12 Americans. To respond, President Clinton ordered an attack with missiles against an al-Qaeda base in Afghanistan.
In 2000, al-Qaeda militants in Yemen bombed the ship USS Cole in a suicide attack, killing 17 Americans and damaging the ship. After the success of such a bold attack, al-Qaeda’s leaders got ready for an attack inside the United States.
A few minutes after takeoff on the morning of September 11, 2001, teams of al-Qaeda men took over four American airliners. Two of the airplanes were flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. Morning news programs thought it had been an accident. Turning their cameras on the burning building, Americans watched as the second plane flew into the other tower. Less than two hours later, the heat from the crash and the burning jet fuel was too much and both buildings crumbled and fell. The passengers and crew on both planes, as well as 2,606 people on the ground died, including 343 New York City firefighters who had gone into the towers to save people.
The third hijacked plane was flown into the Pentagon, the headquarters of the military, just outside Washington, DC, killing everyone on board and 125 people on the ground. The fourth plane, also flying to Washington, crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, when passengers, who had heard about the other planes, tried to attack hijackers. Everyone on board was killed.
Primary Source: Photograph
Firefirghters raised an American flag on the rubble of the collapsed World Trade Center. Americans were enormously unified in the wake of the attack and and supportive of President Bush. This photograph has often been compared to the images of the flag raising on Iwo Jima by marines during World War II.
THE BUSH DOCTRINE
That evening, President Bush promised Americans that the people who had planned the attacks would be found and would have to pay for what they did. Three days later, Congress voted to give the president the power to use the military to find the group who had planned the attacks. On September 20, Bush gave a speech and declared war on terrorism, blaming al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden for the attacks. He said that the Taliban, Islamic fundamentalists who ran the government of Afghanistan, had to turn bin Laden in or they would be attacked by the United States. In this speech, Bush described what we call the Bush Doctrine, the idea that the United States has the right to protect itself by starting wars to get rid of governments that might attack us or are helping people who attack us.
THE WAR IN AFGHANISTAN
When it became clear that Osama bin Laden had planned the 9/11 attacks, the United States focused on Afghanistan and the government there that was protecting him. Like many others from around the Islamic world, bin Laden had come to Afghanistan to help a group called the Taliban fight against the Soviets during the 1980s. It seemed strange, but back in the 1980 both bin Laden and the Taliban had gotten help from the United States since the war there was one of the many proxy fights of the Cold War. By the late 1980s, the Soviets and the Americans had both left Afghanistan, but not bin Laden.
When the Soviets left, the Taliban took over the government of Afghanistan and ran it as a strict Islamic theocracy. They used the most extreme ideas about Islam to create laws. Many of their ideas seemed over the top to Americans, like not letting girls go to school or even leave their homes without a man or boy to go with them.
President George W. Bush told the Taliban to turn over bin Laden and the other members of al-Qaeda, and when they said no, he ordered the American military into Afghanistan. The United States teamed up with a group called the Afghan Northern Alliance who didn’t like the Taliban and by November of 2001, only two months after the 9/11 attacks, the Taliban had been thrown out of power. Osama bin Laden and his followers had already escaped across the border into Pakistan, however, where they stayed hidden for many years.
Primary Source: Photograph
An American soldier in Nuristan Province, Afghanistan. The war in Afghanistan turned out to be the longest in American history.
THE IRAQ WAR
At the same time that the military was taking over Afghanistan, President Bush and his team were looking to a new and larger war with Iraq. The United States and Iraq had been enemies for many years, ever since the Gulf War in 1991. One group of George W. Bush’s advisors, sometimes called neoconservatives, or neocons, thought that Iraq and its dictator Saddam Hussein were setting a bad example for terrorist groups around the world. Among these was Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. They thought it was the right time to attack Iraq and get rid of Hussein once and for all. Others, like Secretary of State Colin Powell, were not sure starting a war was a good idea. After all, Iraq had not attacked the United States.
President Bush himself had said that Iraq was one of America’s greatest enemies in a speech in 2002, when he called Iraq, Iran and North Korea an Axis of Evil. Using both the name for America’s enemies in World War II and Reagan’s famous name for the Soviet Union, the Axis of Evil sounded good, and Bush used it again and again as a simple way of talking about America’s enemies.
Attacking Iraq was a hard decision for many people in the United States. On one hand, no one thought that Saddam Hussein was a good person, and it was clear that he had done terrible things to both his own people and his neighbors. On the other hand, he had not attacked America, and had he had not supported terrorists. Many wondered if it was legal or moral to attack first.
Neoconservatives who thought that attacking won the argument. They said that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). WMDs are nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons that can kill thousands of people at once. And, the neocons said, Hussein might use them against Israel. Hussein had used chemical weapons during a war with Iran in the 1980s, and against the Kurds, an ethnic group who fought against his government in 1988, so many Americans thought it made sense that he would be willing to use them again.
Following the Gulf War, inspectors from the United Nations had found and gotten rid of Iraqi WMDs. Now, Bush’s team said they thought Saddam Hussein had been able to hide nuclear weapons. President Bush told Americans that the United States could not wait until Hussein used a nuclear weapon to be sure he had them.
The head of the United Nations team that had looked for nuclear weapons in Iraq said Bush’s team was wrong. He said that Saddam Hussein had not been honest, but that he did not have WMDs. In the end, even Secretary of State Colin Powell told the United Nations General Assembly that Hussein had broken UN rules and was secretly hiding WMDs. A lot of the evidence the Americans used when telling the world about WMDs in Iraq had come from a spy and it turned out later that the spy’s information was fake. In March 2003, the United States led an attack on Iraq with the help of Great Britain, Australia, and Poland.
Another reason the neocons said it was the right time to attack Iraq was because they thought it would be easy. They remembered the short and successful First Gulf War. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld told the American people there was no chance an attack on Iraq could turn into a long, drawn-out fight like Vietnam. “Five days or five weeks or five months, but it certainly isn’t going to last any longer than that,” he said. And, just days before the fighting started in 2003, Vice President Cheney told American soldiers that they would probably be welcomed by the Iraqi people and the war would be over in “weeks.” Early in the war, these predictions seemed to be coming true. Americans back home watched on television as American soldiers and the Iraqi people worked together to tear down statues of Saddam Hussein.
The reality, however, was more complicated. While American deaths had been few, thousands of Iraqis had died. Even those who did not like Saddam Hussein, did not like the idea of Americans attacking their homeland and killing their friends and family.
Getting rid of Saddam Hussein and his government led to other problems the Americans had not planned on. Iraq is a large country with many different groups of people. There are Sunni and Shia Muslims both in Iraq. These two groups have sometimes gone to war with one another. A large Kurdish minority in the North of Iraq had for many years wanted to be free to run things in the North themselves. While he was president, Hussein had ruled as a dictator and kept all of these groups from fighting. Without him, they all began trying to get control.
In a speech in May 2003, on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, President Bush said that America had won the war. A banner that said “Mission Accomplished” was hanging on the ship behind him. But it turned out that the speech and the banner were both wrong. Bush and his team had not planned on a long war. They had also not planned on how to keep order in Iraq once they got rid of Hussein’s police officers. And worst of all, they had not planned on how to deal with the fighting that began between the different groups who all wanted to be in charge. Americans remembered Bush’s speech and the banner as a sign that he and his team had made a mistake by attacking Iraq because most of the deaths and the fighting came after the speech.
Primary Source: Photograph
Although he never said the words “mission accomplished” the banner behind him gave Americans the impression that President Bush thought the war was over. Later when the insurgency in Iraq dragged on, the speech was used by his political rivals to demonstrate the failure of his foreign policy team to prepare for what would happen in Iraq after the initial military victory against Saddam Hussein’s forces.
Right after the 9/11 attacks, Americans had looked to Bush for leadership and more than 90% of Americans liked the way he was doing his job. Even after the first few months of the Iraq War, 70% said they liked him. But as the country got ready for the 2004 election, people started to think the war in Iraq was a bad idea. News stories about more and more fighting, and the fact that no one ever found WMDs, hurt Bush’s popularity. Some people wondered if the president and his team had been lying about WMDs as an excuse to go to war. If he hadn’t been lying, they wondered how he could have been so wrong.
Things got worse for Bush as people around the world started to complain about the way Americans were treating prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay prison. American leaders did not want to bring captured terrorists from Afghanistan to the United States because they would have to follow American law and let the terrorists have lawyers and a trial. They also didn’t want to leave the terrorists in Afghanistan or Iraq where local leaders might let them go. Instead, 779 prisoners were taken to the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, the last bit of land in Cuba the United States owned. Many people in the United States and around the world thought that Bush was using a trick to get out of following the law. It got worse when people found out that the prisoners were being tortured. For Americans who had been tortured as prisoners in Vietnam, including Senator John McCain, finding out that their own country was doing the same terrible thing came as a shock and disappointment. When Barack Obama ran for president in 2008, he promised to end the practice and close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. Although torture did stop, the prison stayed open. As of January 2021, 40 prisoners were still held there.
Probably the worst moment of the war for many Americans was when photographs were released showing the torture of Iraqis by American soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Just as the United States had lost respect after the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam, people around the world stopped believing that America was fighting for freedom and justice in the War on Terror.
People knew George W. Bush had made mistakes when they went to vote for president in 2004, but still a majority of Americans picked him over Senator John Kerry. Bush’s reelection meant that the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq continued.
THE IRAQI INSURGENCY
In March 2004, fighters in Iraq attacked a group of trucks driven by Americans working for the company Blackwater USA. The army had hired Blackwater to help them, and even though they weren’t soldiers, these Americans were also targets of Iraqis who wanted the Americans out. Americans were shocked to learn that the Blackwater drivers had been tortured and killed. Attacks on Americans were one problem in Iraq, but attacks by one group of Iraqis on other groups of Iraqis was another, and there didn’t seem like anyone had a good answer to either problem. Also, the American war in Iraq was starting to cost a lot of money, money that wasn’t being spent fighting al-Qaeda in Afghanistan where we still hadn’t found Osama bin Laden.
As the United States and the United Kingdom tried to end the fighting in Iraq and start up a new government, fighters from other countries in the Middle East started to arrive to help in the fight to get the Americans and British out. As the insurgency, or war against the Americans, grew there was a change. No longer were American and British troops being attacked. The insurgents started attacking the new Iraqi Army the Americans had been training and hundreds of police officers and regular Iraqis were killed in bombings.
Primary Source: Photograph
American tanks patrol the streets of Tal Afar, Iraq in February 2005. Patrols and convoys of trucks were frequent targets of homemade bombs during the insurgency.
For America, Iraq was turning out a lot like Vietnam. Soldiers were looking for enemy fighters who looked like regular people. Americans back home got mad when they read about our soldiers dying in battles to clear insurgents from the same towns over and over again.
Any hope that the insurgency wouldn’t last long, and American soldiers would be able to come home ended as suicide bombers attacked all over Iraq. To fight back against the growing problem, President Bush asked for a surge of 21,500 more soldiers, money to give jobs to Iraqis, and $1.2 billion to rebuild the country. He hoped that by making Iraq safer and rebuilding the country would win the hearts and minds of the people. It got even more important for the United States to get things right in Iraq when the United Kingdom brought its soldiers home. The war had become so unpopular there that British leaders just quit and left the job to the United States.
The Iraq War was an important topic in the 2008 presidential election, especially in the Democratic primary race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. When they were both senators, Clinton had voted for President Bush’s idea to attack Iraq, but Obama had voted no. By 2008, many Democratic primary voters had turned against the war, and even though Clinton had also, some voters decided not to vote for her because of her old vote in favor of the war. In the general election, Obama said that the war in Afghanistan had been ok because America needed to find Osama bin Laden, but the war in Iraq had been a mistake. The Republican, John McCain, didn’t have a good answer to Obama’s argument.
Just like he promised, after winning, President Obama said American soldiers would leave Iraq and the Iraqi army would take over. In December of 2011, the last American soldiers came home, leaving only a small group of Americans to train the Iraqi army.
In the summer of 2014, President Obama sent some American soldiers back to Iraq, but only in the air force so that the United States could bomb and stop a new terrorist group called the Islamic State, or ISIS. A civil war between ISIS and the government of Iraq went on for the next three years, until ISIS was defeated near the end of 2017. As of 2020, Iraq was mostly peaceful, and the Iraqi government asked all foreign soldiers to leave their country.
President Obama also kept his promise to find terrorists in Afghanistan. Like Bush had done in Iraq, Obama sent a surge of troops in Afghanistan. Their goal was to stop the Taliban who had come back and were trying to get rid of the government of Afghanistan that America supported. One thing that Americans all still wanted to do in Afghanistan was to find Osama bin Laden, the man who had planned the September 11 attacks. After 2002, he had escaped into the mountains. Finally, in 2011, spy agencies found him hidden in a house in Pakistan. In April 2011, President Obama ordered a secret operation to kill or capture him, and on May 2, the president told the country that Navy SEALs had been able to fly into Pakistan without being discovered, kill bin Laden, and had buried his body at sea.
A full three years later, and five years after becoming president, Obama fighting in Afghanistan was over. But still, over 8,000 American soldiers stayed in the country to help fight terrorists and train the Afghan army. President Trump brought some more of the soldiers home, but still left some in the country, hoping to stop the Taliban from retaking control of Afghanistan. In 2021, President Biden said that all American soldiers would leave Afghanistan by September 11, 2021, the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attack that led America into Afghanistan in the first place. It is the longest war in American history, by far.
The years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan have not done much to make America better. In Iraq, 4,475 American soldiers died and 32,220 were hurt. In Afghanistan as of 2021, 2,420 soldiers died and 19,950 were hurt. As many as 2 million people in Iraq and Afghanistan have died. It’s hard to count up how much the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan cost, but it could be as much as $4 trillion. Instead of raising taxes to pay for the wars, the government borrowed money. It will be many years before Americans have paid enough taxes to finish paying off the bills.
Primary Source: Photograph
President Obama, along with this foreign policy team and military leaders wait and watch in the White house Situation room for the results of the mission to kill or capture Osama bin Laden.
PRIVACY AND SECURITY
September 11 made many Americans realize that the end of the Cold War did not mean an end of danger. Just like the Red Scare of the 1950s, some Americans worried that there might already be terrorists inside the United States, and there was a rise in hate crimes against Muslim Americans. To make Americans safer, and to make them feel safer, the government created the Department of Homeland Security. This new department took control of the Coast Guard, the FBI, the Border Patrol and other government agencies which help keep the country safe. What most Americans noticed about these changes was the new Transportation Security Administration (TSA) that took over security at airports. Gone are the days when anyone could go through airport security and meet their friends at the gate.
Primary Source: Photograph
For most Americans, the TSA is the most visible evidence of the War on Terror.
The government also passed the USA Patriot Act, which gave the police more power to find terrorists and stop attacks before they happened. For some, the Patriot Act took too much privacy away. For example, the law gave the police the right to monitor people’s emails and phone calls without a warrant. Beginning in 2002, the National Security Agency (NSA) started collecting the phone records of all Americans. The program ended when people leaked what the government was doing to the New York Times, and it was printed in the newspaper.
The War on Terror brought back the old fight between the government which wants to do things secretly, and the people who want to know what their government is doing. In 2013, a government worker named Edward Snowden stole secret documents and gave them to the press. In June 2013, the first of Snowden’s documents were published by The Washington Post and The Guardian newspaper in London. Later, other newspapers also published some of what Snowden had taken.
When Americans read these documents, they learned about secret treaties the government made with other countries to share information about their people. What Snowden did reminded many people of the Pentagon Papers, which had shown government secrecy and lies about the Vietnam War. For the government, Snowden was dangerous. In court, the government accused Snowden of being a spy and stealing from the government. He moved to Russia to escape the American police. For people who think the government should have the power to find terrorists, Snowden is a traitor. On the other hand, people who think the government has taken too much power think Snowden is a hero for uncovering secrets and lies.
Primary Source: Editorial Cartoon
This cartoon pokes fun at President Obama’s efforts to reign in the expansive surveillance programs at the NSA, and at the extensive nature of the NSA programs themselves. For many Americans, learning about what the NSA knew and how much information it had collected was frightening and made them question how much privacy and individual freedom they were willing to give up in the name of protection from potential terror attacks.
There have been terrorist attacks from other countries, and some terrorist attacks carried out by Americans, but in modern times there has also been a new form of terror: mass shootings. The Washington Post began collecting and sharing data about mass shootings starting with the killing of 18 people at the University of Texas in 1966. Before the 1990s, there were only a few shootings each year. But then in 1999, two students at Columbine High School in Colorado killed 17 people. Since then, shootings have happened more and more. In the past ten years there have been multiple mass shootings each year, not only at schools, but also at businesses, theaters, nightclubs, military bases, and churches.
The worst school shootings were in 2007 at Virginia Tech when 33 people were killed and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 when 28 people were killed. The most people died in one attack in 2017 at a concert in Las Vegas when 61 people were murdered and 849 more were hurt. The second most deadly shooting was the 2016 Orlando nightclub attack when 50 people were killed.
Mass shootings get a lot of attention in the news, but they are only a small fraction of all gun-related deaths in the United States. In 2018, 39,740 people were killed by guns. Of these deaths 61% were suicides, 13,958 homicides, and over 1,000 deaths were caused by accidents or carelessness. Also, another 115,000 people were hurt but not killed. America is different from most other countries in the world in this way. In a report from 2016 that compared the United States to 22 other rich countries, Americans had 25 times more deaths from guns than any other country. The United States had 82% of all gun deaths, even though the other countries had twice as many people.
In 2020, a report found that 44% of Americans live in homes with guns, and in the United States today, there are more guns than people. Gun violence is most common in poor areas of cities, but people own guns in all parts of the country.
THE SECOND AMENDMENT
Of course, many people have tried to stop gun violence. Lately, people have tried to make new laws that make it harder for people to buy guns or make it illegal to get some kinds of guns. But guns have a special place in America’s history that goes back all the way to when America was born. Because Americans had guns in the 1770s, they were able to fight against the British. Eventually, an army made up of regular people defeated the powerful British army and the United States became independent. The Founding Fathers who wrote our new country’s Constitution knew that the government could never take too much power if people had guns, so they added the Second Amendment to the Constitution. This amendment said that the people have the right to own guns. The Second Amendment says: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” For most of America’s history, people didn’t really think much about the Second Amendment. Americans were farmers and explorers and almost everyone had at least one gun. But now most people live in cities and as crime has gone up, Americans have started thinking more about what the Second Amendment says.
Primary Source: Photograph
A gun show in Houston, Texas. A frequent target of gun regulation activists is the fact that people who want to buy guns do not have to complete background checks when making their purchases at gun shows.
Today, gun politics is broken down into two ways of thinking. One group of people like the idea of gun control. They want there to be laws that limit guns and limit who can buy guns. These people look at the first half of the Second Amendment where it says that people have the right to own guns so they can be part of “a well-regulated militia.” For these people, the Amendment clearly gives a reason for having guns.
On the other hand, people who like gun rights point to the second half of the Amendment to show that the government has no power to limit guns. The Supreme Court normally decides about the meaning of the Constitution when people disagree, but they have only recently taken any cases about gun rights, and when they did, they sided with the view that Americans have a basic right to own guns. In the District of Columbia v. Heller decision in 2008, the Court said a law that stopped people in DC from owning handguns was unconstitutional. The Court said that the Second Amendment does not give the government the right to pick and choose which types of guns people can have. However, the Court also said in the Heller decision that the right to own guns is limited. We will have to wait for future decisions to see what kinds of laws limiting gun ownership the Court might be willing to accept.
In other nations where the right to own guns is not written into the constitution, mass shootings have led to quick changes in the law. After a mass shooting at a church in New Zealand, that country’s government passed a new law that made military-style guns illegal. In Australia, a mass shooting led to a law that made almost all guns illegal. In the United Kingdom, guns are so rare that even police officers do not carry guns.
In the United States today, the National Rifle Association (NRA) is a powerful protector of gun rights. They are an interest group that gives a lot of money to political candidates and tries to change how people think about guns. The NRA started this work when the conservative revolution happened in the 1970s and they mostly help the Republican Party. Most Republicans support gun rights, and the NRA has given a lot of money to Republican politicians.
After the shooting in 2018 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, student survivors formed a group to fight for new laws to limit gun ownership. Many of the students blamed the NRA and the politicians who accept money from them for stopping new gun laws. The NRA defended gun owners and blamed the shooting on the FBI and the media. The NRA also said that the shooting proved that more guns were needed in schools in the hands of security guards and teachers to stop shooters. A Florida law passed after the shooting that stopped people under 21 from buying guns was challenged in court by the NRA who said that it discriminated against 18-to 21-year-olds.
From what we’ve seen in the past 20 years, both the danger of guns, and the debate over guns seem to be part of America’s future.
Primary Source: Photograph
Students protest gun violence outside the White House in Washington, DC. After the shooting in Parkland, Florida, survivors from Stoneman Douglas High School organized a student movement to advocate for legislative change.
Over time, Americans have had different ideas about what it means to be free. When the country was created, freedom meant the freedom from control by another country. In the 1800s, freedom was about the right to move west and start a new life. In the 1930s, Americans wanted to be free from hunger and the government created the New Deal to give them this right. In the Cold War, we wanted our government to protect us from death in nuclear war.
Lately, freedom has again changed meanings. Franklin Roosevelt’s old “freedom from fear” has taken on new meaning as we want our government to protect us from terrorism. Of course, as fights against surveillance laws like the USA Patriot Act, and fights against gun laws both show, we do not want so much safety that our freedom of privacy or right to protect ourselves is taken away.
So, the War on Terror has led to many bad outcomes. We have given up some of our privacy and some of our rights to buy more security. We have spent billions of dollars and lost thousands of soldiers in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in an effort to find and punish the people who attacked us. Along the way, the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and stories of torture have hurt the reputation of the United States in the eyes of the world.
Is it worth it? Are the things we have lost equal to the safety we have won? Is it ok with you to wait in long lines at TSA checkpoints in order to be sure no hijackers are on your flight? Would you be comfortable walking through a metal detector every morning before school if it meant that you could be sure no one had guns hidden in their bags?
What do you think? Has the War on Terror been worth the cost?
- Previous: The Post-Cold War World
- Next: The American People
BIG IDEA: Since 2001, the primary foreign policy concern of American presidents has been to prevent terrorist attacks. American forces have fought long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with mixed results. Back home, Americans have had to give up some of their privacy in exchange for protection. As mass shootings have become more frequent, a debate has grown about balancing safety and Second Amendment rights.
In the 1990s, a major terrorist attack took place in Oklahoma City at a federal office building. The attackers were anti-government veterans.
The September 11 attacks were carried out by al-Qaeda, a group operating out of Afghanistan that was led by Osama bin Laden. They hijacked airplanes and crashed them into the two towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and into the Pentagon near Washington, DC. A fourth plane crashed when the passengers tried to retake control from the hijackers. It was the worst terrorist attack in American history.
Al-Qaeda was not new. They had attacked two American embassies in Africa and a navy ship. President Clinton had ordered a missile strike on one of their bases in response.
After 9/11 President George W. Bush proposed the Bush Doctrine, arguing that America should strike first to prevent attacks. This idea justified war against Afghanistan and Iraq. The United States invaded Afghanistan in order to destroy Al-Qaeda. The war ended quickly as American forces toppled the Taliban government. Unfortunately, creating a new, stable government proved difficult, and American forces spent 20 years in Afghanistan trying to support the new government and fight Taliban insurgents.
Bush decided to invade Iraq, claiming that Saddam Hussein still had chemical and nuclear weapons. The invasion went well, but getting rid of Hussein, who had kept everyone in line, led to fighting among groups within the country and an insurgency against the American occupation. The ongoing war ruined Bush’s popularity. Revelations of torture of prisoners in Iraq and the detention of terror suspects in Guantanamo Bay upset many Americans and damaged America’s reputation in the world.
In order to find terrorists and stop their attacks, Congress passed laws permitting extensive surveillance of American citizens. Eventually some of this power was taken away as people learned how much privacy they were giving up in the name of security.
In recent years mass shootings have come to be a new sort of terror and political movements have started to try to limit access to guns. Students form an important anti-gun group, while the NRA serves as a well-funded pro-gun lobby. The Second Amendment guarantees Americans’ right to own guns, which makes gun regulation less likely in the United States than in other nations.
PEOPLE AND GROUPS
Al-Qaeda: Terrorist group led by Osama bin Laden that carried out the 9/11 attacks.
Osama bin Laden: Leader of al-Qaeda and mastermind of the 9/11 terror attacks. He was eventually killed by American special forces in 2011.
Taliban: Ultra-conservative Muslim group that took over the government of Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion ended. They harbored Osama bin Laden and were defeated by the United States in 2002, but have since waged an insurgency against the American occupation and new Afghan government.
Neoconservatives: A group of Republican advisors to President George W. Bush who advocated for the invasion of Iraq and argued that it was morally acceptable to invade a nation that had not attacked the United States in order to prevent possible future attacks.
Richard “Dick” Cheney: Vice President for George W. Bush. He was a strong supporter of the Iraq War.
Donald Rumsfeld: First Secretary of Defense for George W. Bush. He was a strong supporter of the Iraq War but later resigned when it went poorly.
Islamic State (ISIS): Terrorist group that became powerful in 2014 during the Iraqi insurgency and captured territory in Iraq and Syria during the Syrian Civil War. They practiced and extreme version of Islam and have been the primary target of the American War on Terror in recent years. They were defeated by a combination of Iraqi and American forces.
Edward Snowden: Government contractor who stole and released a trove of documents that detailed some of the activities in the War on Terror. He is seen by some as a traitor and by others as a hero depending on one’s position on government spying and secrecy.
National Rifle Association (NRA): Powerful interest group that lobbies for gun rights and brings gun rights cases to court.
Bush Doctrine: The belief that the United States has the right to engage in preemptive war and to use force without the help of allies is acceptable.
Axis of Evil: President George W. Bush’s nickname for Iran, Iraq, and North Korea.
Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs): Name for weapons that can kill large numbers of people in a single attack such as nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.
Winning Hearts and Minds: Phrase to describe the counter-insurgency objective of the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan. It shows an emphasis on convincing the people to support the new government rather than on winning territory.
Bush’s Mission Accomplished Speech: Speech by George W. Bush after the successful invasion of Iraq and destruction of Saddam Hussein’s government in 2003. It became a symbol of his problems in Iraq after the insurgency began.
World Trade Center: Largest skyscrapers in America in 2001 before they collapsed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Pentagon: Headquarters of the American military. The large building is across the Potomac River from Washington, DC and was the target of one of the hijacked planes in the 9/11 attack.
Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp: Prison built to house terrorists captured in Afghanistan and elsewhere. It has been criticized because the prisoners there are not guaranteed a trial and were tortured during the George W. Bush Presidency.
Abu Ghraib Prison: Prison in Iraq that was the site of torture by American guards. Photos of the incidents were leaked and turned many against the war, and many around the world against the United States and its war in Iraq.
Branch Davidian Raid: 1993 raid by the FBI and other law enforcement authorities on the compound of a cult group in Waco, Texas after a long standoff. The raid went badly and the cult members set their compound on fire and committed suicide. The raid inspired the Oklahoma City bombing.
Bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building: 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building killing 168 people. It was the most deadly terrorist attack in America before 9/11 and the most deadly every carried out by American citizens.
1998 Embassy Bombings: Attacks by al-Qaeda suicide bombers against Americans in Kenya and Tanzania in Africa before the 9/11 attack.
USS Cole Attack: Suicide bombing of an American navy destroyer in 2000 by al-Qaeda.
September 11, 2001: The most deadly terrorist attack in American history. Al-Qaeda members hijacked four airlines and flew them into the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon across the river from Washington, DC. A fourth plane crashed in Pennsylvania when passengers attempted to retake control.
War on Terror: The fight against al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and other terrorist groups that has dominated American foreign policy after the 9/11 attacks in 2001.
War in Afghanistan: War that began in 2002 in an attempt to capture the terrorists responsible for the 9/11 attack. It continued on as a war against the Taliban insurgency and is now the longest war in American history.
Iraq War: 2003-2014 war initiated by President George W. Bush in an effort to capture WMDs held by Saddam Hussein and eventually concluded by President Obama. It was always controversial and ultimately very unpopular.
Iraqi Insurgency: Fight by various groups in Iraq against the American occupation. The effort to rebuild the nation after the initial destruction of Saddam Hussein’s government went poorly and was not well planned. This phase of the war included numerous suicide bombings against American and Iraqi government targets.
The Surge: An increase of 21,500 troops in Iraq in 2007 during the insurgency. It was intended to increase security in order to allow rebuilding programs and government stabilization to take place.
Columbine High School Shooting: 1999 attack at a Colorado high school that resulted in 17 deaths. Although not the very first mass shooting, it inspired many copycat attacks.
2017 Las Vegas Shooting: Most deadly mass shooting in the United States. 61 people were killed at an outdoor concert.
Stoneman Douglas High School Shooting: 2018 mass shooting that inspired a student movement for gun regulation.
USA Patriot Act: Law passed in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks that gave law enforcement agencies expanded powers to gather information in order to prevent terrorist attacks. Some of its previsions have been criticized and reversed as invasions of personal freedom and privacy.
Second Amendment: Constitutional amendment that guarantees citizens the right to own and carry guns.
District of Columbia v. Heller: 2008 Supreme Court case that upheld the right own and carry guns (by striking down a ban on handguns) but affirmed the government’s power to regulate gun ownership.
Department of Homeland Security: New government department formed after the 9/11 attacks that includes the Coast Guard, TSA, and agencies responsible for customs, border patrol, and immigration.
Transportation Security Administration (TSA): Government agency responsible for security airports and air travel. It was created after the 9/11 attacks and replaced private security guards in the job of inspecting people and baggage on American flights.
National Security Agency (NSA): Government spy agency that has grown during the War on Terror. Unlike the CIA, they do not rely on human spies, but use data collection instead. They carried out the cell phone surveillance program that was widely criticized.