As Americans paused Thursday to remember those who died in the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil, they also confronted the possibility that the 13 exhausting years of war that followed may not be ending soon.
On the eve of another 9/11 anniversary, President Barack Obama announced an expansion of U.S. airstrikes against militants in Iraq and Syria.
The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks killed nearly 3,000 Americans. Now, more than twice as many have given their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq. U.S. taxpayers have spent more than $4 trillion on both wars.
Thirteen years of war have left a profound mark on Americans.
The country struggles to provide a whole generation of combat veterans proper care for their wounds, physical and mental. Expanded domestic security and surveillance regimes have deepened the distrust between Americans and their government, and vice versa.
America’s elected leaders took the country to war in Iraq based on false intelligence, and some paid the price at the ballot box.
It’s been two years since U.S. troops left that country. It will be two more before U.S. troops leave Afghanistan. Yet for all the effort, Americans face real and growing threats.
Two years ago, four Americans were killed in a terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, including the U.S. ambassador. In just the past month, two American journalists have been executed by their militant captors.
Americans largely set aside their differences on Thursday, as they’ve done every Sept. 11 for the past 13 years. But many Americans, and their elected representatives, are weary of war, and even those who support new military engagement are doing so with reluctance.
John Slenk, 68, of Kalamazoo, Mich., visited Arlington National Cemetery on Thursday and wondered if the U.S. could ever solve the conflicts in Iraq and Syria. But the 37-year law enforcement veteran knows from his experience that sometimes you have to get involved.
“I think what he’s trying to do is the right thing,” Slenk said of Obama, “but I know that’s going to be a difficult venture to go in there and resolve a faction in this world that we’ve come to live with.”
Near the U.S. Capitol, Jill Martinez, 65, a retired veterans advocate from Sacramento, Calif., said she supported airstrikes, but little else.
“We do need to take action,” she said, “but it’s got to be an action that everyone agrees to, and something hopefully does not include boots on the ground.”
On Capitol Hill, many of the lawmakers who stood on the Capitol steps and sang “God Bless America” on 9/11 found themselves still debating the role of the U.S. in policing the world.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he didn’t believe Obama’s statement Wednesday night that the country is safer now than it was 13 years ago.
“There are more terrorists, more organizations with more money, more capability, and more weapons to attack our homeland than existed before 9/11,” Graham said.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., another Obama critic and his 2008 presidential rival, went even further.
“Because of a feckless foreign policy, America is in greater danger than it has been, in some respects, in my lifetime,” said McCain, who’s 78.
Others were cautiously supportive of the president.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said she was glad the president laid out “an aggressive, comprehensive plan” to fight the Islamic State, but she said she plans to ask the administration many tough questions.
“I voted against the war in Iraq and remember very well how our country was led into it,” she said. “So I understand how important it is for us in Congress to think very carefully about the consequences of military engagement.”
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., who sang in unison with her colleagues on the Capitol steps 13 years ago, on Thursday said the U.S. cannot endure another open-ended conflict.
“There can be no blank checks and no proposals without real strategies connected to them,” she said.
Other lawmakers noted that Thursday was also the anniversary of the Benghazi attack.
Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee in the House of Representatives, said the U.S. must stay vigilant.
“This violent attack painfully demonstrated that the threat of terrorism persists both at home and abroad,” he said.
“Recent events across the Middle East and North Africa serve as a sober reminder on this anniversary that our enemies are resilient,” said Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Hundreds or even thousands of miles from the Capitol, the reaction was similarly mixed.
Mike Daisley, a lawyer from Charlotte, N.C., said the president made the case that there was no better option other than military force.
“What he put out there last night is a very good attempt at threading that difficult needle,” Daisley said.
Charles Williams of Shiloh, Ill., sided with the president’s proposal.
“If it’d be another 9/11, he’d be doing the right thing,” he said. “And it seems like that’s what it’s heading toward.”
Others expressed more reluctance.
Candace Williams of Belleville, Ill., was walking out of the post office carrying her daughter on her hip midday Thursday.
“I’d like for it to end,” she said.
Melissa Saunders of Fort Worth, Texas, worried about the length of the commitment.
“You can’t put a date on how things will go there,” Saunders said. “But the worry is that we could be there for years fighting.”
Elsa Barry, 91, of Fresno, Calif., who served in the Navy during World War II, said that just when conflict seems to be winding down in the Middle East, some new problem flares up.
“We have no business trying to settle everybody else’s problems,” she said.
Adin Hester, 75, of Visalia, Calif., identified himself as a “Reaganite” who thinks that Obama is not doing enough to protect the country.
However, Hester said he’d prefer it if U.S. troops stayed out of Syria.
“I’ve seen what we did in Iraq,” he said. “It’s coming back to haunt us.”