Divided, bruised US marks 9/11 anniv
Americans mark the 20th anniversary of 9/11 today with troops finally gone from Afghanistan, but national discord -- and for President Joe Biden, political peril -- are overshadowing any sense of closure.
The Sept 11 attacks also ushered in an era of increased surveillance, human rights violations and mass displacements globally, with the social and economic fallout likely to continue for decades, experts said.
A whole generation has grown up since the morning of September 11, 2001.
In the interim, al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden has been hunted down and killed. A towering new sky scraper has risen over Manhattan, replacing the Twin Towers. And less than two weeks ago, the last US soldiers flew from Kabul airport, ending the so-called "forever war."
Yet 9/11 never fully went away.
The Taliban who once sheltered bin Laden are back ruling Afghanistan. The mighty US military has been humiliated. In Guantanamo Bay, accused 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other men continue to await trial, nine years after charges were filed.
Even the full story of how the attack came to happen remains secret. Only last week did Biden order the release of classified documents from the FBI investigation over the next six months.
Meanwhile, according rights advocates, Washington's "war on terror" has fuelled erosions in civil liberties and human rights worldwide.
Governments have used counter-terrorism as justification to tighten or pass laws to crack down on dissent and round up those deemed as a threat to national security, disproportionately targeting activists and minorities, according to rights groups.
"9/11 threw the privacy-security balance badly out of whack," said Steven Feldstein, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "Policymakers contended that fighting terrorism in whatever manner they deemed necessary took precedence over protecting citizens' rights.
"Governments took advantage of America's 9/11 anxiety and exploited the threat of terrorism to advance their own repressive agendas," he added.
About 20 years of post-9/11 wars have cost the United States more than $8 trillion and caused about 900,000 deaths, according to estimates by the Costs of War project at Brown University, which said it did not factor in the "high societal costs".
At least 37 million people have fled their homes in the eight most violent wars the US military has launched or participated in since 2001 - including Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen, according to the Costs of War project.
The true figure is likely to be as high as 59 million, the researchers said, noting the "incalculable harm" done to individuals, families, towns, regions, as well as to entire countries physically, socially, emotionally, and economically.
In Afghanistan alone, there are about 5.5 million internally displaced people and some 570,000 have been newly displaced this year, the United Nations has said, as fighting escalated in the run up to the capture of Kabul by the Taliban on Aug. 15.
Same as every year, simple, heart-wrenching ceremonies will unfold at each of the three places where al-Qaeda hijackers crashed packed airliners, striking the cultural, financial and political hearts of the United States.
Ground Zero in New York was where the majority of the approximately 3,000 fatalities, including people from all over the world, were killed in the initial explosions, jumped to their deaths, or simply vanished in the inferno of the collapsing towers.
At the Pentagon, an airliner tore a fiery hole in the side of the superpower's military nerve center.
And in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, the third wave of hijackers crashed into a field after passengers fought back, sending United 93 down before reaching its intended target -- likely the US Capitol building in Washington, a short flight further on.
Biden and First Lady Jill Biden will stop at each of these places today to "honor and memorialize the lives lost," the White House said.
Biden planned for this to be a pivotal day in his nearly eight-month-old presidency.
Taking over from Donald Trump in January, with the country still reeling from a Trump mob's assault on Congress, he promised Americans unity; exiting Afghanistan against the background of the 9/11 anniversary was going to be a big part of that.
However, instead of presiding over a moment of unity, Biden will traverse a country angry about the chaotic Kabul evacuation and stung by the broader realization of failure and defeat.
And for Afghans, who thought the events of Sept 11, 2001 were far away from them, things have turned from bad to worse.
A brief period of peace followed after the Taliban were ejected after a swift US intervention, but it would not last.
"When the Taliban were gone, people were happy, they could at least breathe freedom," he said.
But as time passed, he "started to believe the US had come to a wrong place. It was a trap for them".
"And 20 years later... I was right," he told AFP.
"The Taliban are back. The same people, faces and attitude are back."