While the country focuses on the upcoming tenth anniversary of 9/11, there is another tenth anniversary that is coming up next week that triggered sweeping changes around the world.
Just a few days after 9/11, Congress passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) — a single sentence that became the legal foundation for 10 years of war and of 10 years of claims of military power to imprison or kill civilian suspects far from any battlefield. Particularly with Osama bin Laden dead, al Qaeda incapacitated, tremendous levels of casualties for American service members, horrific harms caused by war to innocent people around the world, and with a country emotionally exhausted and financially depleted from 10 years of war, it is time for all Americans to decide whether it is time to turn the page on worldwide war, and decide for ourselves whether and where our country should actually be at war.
In emotionally intense debates on the floors of the Senate and House 10 years ago, members of Congress discussed the need for the AUMF, and their determination to give President Bush the authority to go after the plotters and planners of the 9/11 attacks and those who were harboring them. If you go back and read the debates, the focus was on apprehending or killing bin Laden and his co-conspirators and taking away their refuge in Afghanistan.
"Since 9/11, there has been no more dramatic or consequential development than the contention by both the Bush and Obama administrations that the United States is engaged in a global armed conflict against loosely defined terrorist entities and undefined 'associated forces.'"
In those long ago debates on the 2001 AUMF, no one said the president should send the military or the CIA into places like Yemen, Somalia, Kenya, or Thailand, and certainly no one said the government should consider the AUMF to be a green light to kidnap terrorism suspects off the streets of places like Italy and send them to torture cells in places like Egypt, or to kidnap innocent people in places like New York's JFK Airport or while vacationing in Macedonia and send them off to places like Syria or to the Salt Pit prison in Afghanistan. No one said the U.S. should set up secret prisons in places like Poland and use the same torture tactics that we prosecuted other people for using. No one in Congress in the days after 9/11 thought a sleepy and long-ignored Naval base at Guantánamo would be set up as "the legal equivalent of outer space" or that the government would start eavesdropping on Americans without search warrants. And certainly no one at that time thought we would have a president drawing up lists of people slated for "targeted killings." But all of these things have happened by presidents claiming war authority under the post-9/11 AUMF.
Whatever one thinks of the need for the military to have responded forcefully in the days after the 9/11 attacks, it is now past time to say enough is enough. It should be up to Congress to decide, with clear objectives, whether and where the president can use America's military might. The answer cannot be anywhere and everywhere that any president thinks a terrorism suspect resides, even when there is no real threat to the United States. As Americans, we owe more to our own legacy and values than to be a country that makes war wherever any president decides on his or her own to make war, and we certainly owe more to the men and women serving our country and to the people here and abroad whom we claim to protect than to have a war with no end. We don't have to say no to war forever, but we must say no to a forever war.
Read more about the state of our civil liberties post-9/11 in the ACLU's new report "A Call to Courage."