The dominant foreign policy issue of the 2000s and 2010s has been the War on Terror. Begun when al-Qaeda attacked the United States on September 11, 2001, the War on Terror has extended to distant battlefields and in classrooms, courtrooms and halls of power.
In addition to foreign terrorism, Americans also are dealing with terrorists who come from within, especially a dangerous epidemic of mass shootings, as well as an increase in overall gun violence.
To counter these threats we have gone to war in the Middle East, but also implemented new policies at home. We created the Department of Homeland Security and most visibly the TSA to protect the nation’s airlines. We passed laws that gave the government the power to monitor our cell phone usage, and then after realizing how intrusive the government had become, we took that power away again. Even now, we debate the balance between the right to own guns for sport and the right to be safe from violence perpetrated by others.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and cost Americans trillions of dollars. The thousands of gun deaths at home have produced no significant change in the law, and little change in public opinion about gun regulation.
For all that we’ve spent, and all we’ve endured, are we safer? What do you think? Has the War on Terror been worth the cost?
Some in America have grown to fear the government, especially after trust in the nation’s leaders was rocked during the 1970s by the Watergate and other scandals. Those fears appeared to be confirmed in the spring of 1993, when federal and state law enforcement authorities laid siege to the compound of a religious sect called the Branch Davidians near Waco, Texas. The group, which believed the end of world was approaching, was suspected of violating gun laws and various members of the sect had resisted arrest. A standoff developed that lasted nearly two months and was captured on television each day. Federal official decided to make a final assault on the compound to end the siege. As police moved in, 76 men, women, and children died in a fire set by members of the sect. Many others committed suicide or were killed by fellow sect members.
During the siege, numerous people who held antigovernment views and those who feared that the government would use force to take away their freedom came to satisfy their curiosity or show support for sect members inside the compound. One was Timothy McVeigh, a former army infantry soldier. McVeigh had served in Operation Desert Storm in Iraq, earning a bronze star, but he became disillusioned with the military and the government when he was deemed psychologically unfit for the Army Special Forces. He was convinced that the Branch Davidians were victims of government terrorism, and he and his friend Terry Nichols decided to avenge them.
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.
Two years later, on the anniversary of the day the Waco compound burned to the ground, 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 injured in the attack and 168 died, including 19 children at a daycare center inside. Charles Porter IV, one of the workers in the building was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for the photo he snapped of a fireman cradling one of the children who died in the bombing. The image captured the shock, horror and sorrow many Americans felt.
McVeigh hoped that his actions would spark a revolution against government control, but it did not. He and Nichols were both arrested and tried. McVeigh was executed for the worst act of terrorism yet committed on American soil. Just a few months later, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 broke that dark record.
Unlike the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma, the September 11 attacks were carried out by foreigners. The group responsible, al-Qaeda was not new. In fact, they had already launched attacks against Americans, including an attempted bombing of the World Trade Center a few years before that had failed.
Al-Qaeda was led by Osama bin Laden, a wealthy man from Saudi Arabia who had gone to Afghanistan in the 1980s to fight against the Soviet invasion. In Bin Laden’s mind, Muslims and their values were under siege from Christians in America and Europe. To be sure, almost no Muslims in the world supported his extreme views, but he found a small following and the conservative government of Afghanistan in the 1990s protected him and his group. They called themselves al-Qaeda and planned and carried out terrorist suicide attacks on American targets.
In 1996, bin Laden personally engineered a plot to assassinate United States President Bill Clinton while the president was visiting the Philippines. However, intelligence agents discovered the plot and alerted the Secret Service. Agents later discovered a bomb planted under a bridge.
On August 7, 1998, al-Qaeda bombed the US embassies in the East African nations of Kenya and Tanzania, killing 224 people, including 12 Americans. In retaliation, President Clinton ordered an attack with cruise missiles against an al-Qaeda base in Afghanistan.
In 2000, al-Qaeda militants in Yemen bombed the missile destroyer USS Cole in a suicide attack, killing 17 navy servicemen and damaging the vessel while it lay offshore. Inspired by the success of such a brazen attack, al-Qaeda’s command core began to prepare for an attack on the United States itself.
Shortly after takeoff on the morning of September 11, 2001, teams of hijackers seized control of four American airliners. Two of the airplanes were flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan. Morning news programs assumed to it had been an accident. Turning their cameras on the burning building, they captured and aired live footage of the second plane as it barreled into the other tower in a flash of fire and smoke. Less than two hours later, the heat from the crash and the explosion of jet fuel caused the upper floors of both buildings to collapse onto the lower floors, destroying the towers and damaging many of the surrounding skyscrapers as well. The passengers and crew on both planes, as well as 2,606 people on the ground died, including 343 New York City firefighters who rushed in to save victims shortly before the towers collapsed.
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 heading towards Washington, crashed in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, when passengers, aware of the other attacks, attempted to storm the cockpit and disarm the 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 the nation that those responsible for the attacks would be brought to justice. Three days later, Congress issued a joint resolution authorizing the president to use all means necessary against the individuals, organizations, or nations involved in the attacks. On September 20, in an address to a joint session of Congress, Bush declared war on terrorism, blamed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden for the attacks, and demanded that the radical Islamic fundamentalists who ruled Afghanistan, the Taliban, turn bin Laden over or face attack by the United States. This speech encapsulated what became known as the Bush Doctrine, the belief that the United States has the right to protect itself from terrorist acts by engaging in pre-emptive wars or ousting hostile governments in favor of friendly, preferably democratic, regimes.
World leaders and millions of their citizens expressed support for the United States and condemned the deadly attacks. Russian president Vladimir Putin characterized them as a bold challenge to humanity itself. German chancellor Gerhard Schroder said the events of that day were “not only attacks on the people in the United States, our friends in America, but also against the entire civilized world, against our own freedom, against our own values, values which we share with the American people.” Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and a veteran of several bloody struggles against Israel, was dumbfounded by the news and announced to reporters in Gaza, “We completely condemn this very dangerous attack, and I convey my condolences to the American people, to the American president and to the American administration.”
THE WAR IN AFGHANISTAN
When it became clear that the mastermind behind the attack was Osama bin Laden, the full attention of the United States turned to 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 to oust the Soviets during the 1980s. Ironically, both bin Laden and the Taliban had received support 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, but not bin Laden.
When the Soviets left, the Taliban took over the government of Afghanistan and ran it as a strict Islamic theocracy, applying extreme interpretations of Muslim teaching to civil law. Many of their ideas seemed draconian to Americans, such as refusing to allow girls to attend school, or even leave their homes without a male relative escort. Those who dared to break these laws or speak out against them were beaten.
President George W. Bush demanded that the Taliban turn over bin Laden and the other members of al-Qaeda, and when they refused, he ordered an invasion. The United States formed an alliance with the Afghan Northern Alliance, a coalition of tribal leaders opposed to the Taliban and by November of 2001, only two months after the terrorist attacks, the Taliban had been ousted from power. Osama bin Laden and his followers had already escaped across the Afghan border into Pakistan, however, where they remained 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 control of Afghanistan, the Bush administration was looking to a new and larger war with Iraq. Relations between the United States and Iraq had been strained since the Gulf War a decade earlier. Economic sanctions imposed on Iraq by the United Nations, and American attempts to foster internal revolts against President Saddam Hussein’s government had further tainted the relationship. A group of advisors within George W. Bush’s administration, sometimes labeled neoconservatives, or neocons, believed Iraq’s resistance in the face of overwhelming American military superiority represented a dangerous model for terrorist groups around the world. Powerful members of this faction, including Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, believed the time to strike Iraq and solve this festering problem was right then in the wake of 9/11. Others, like Secretary of State Colin Powell, a highly respected veteran of the Vietnam War and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were more cautious about initiating an attack.
President Bush himself had singled out Iraq as one of the America’s most significant enemies in his State of the Union Speech in January 2002, when he called Iraq, Iran and North Korea an Axis of Evil. Borrowing on both the name for America’s enemies in World War II and Reagan’s famous nickname for the Soviet Union, the Axis of Evil had a nice ring to it, and Bush returned again and again to this simple way of labeling America’s adversaries during the rest of his presidency.
Attacking Iraq was a difficult 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 directly attacked America, nor had he supported terrorists. Many wondered if it was legal or moral to attack first.
Neoconservatives who favored preemptive action won, and the argument for war was gradually laid out for the American people. The immediate impetus to the invasion, the neocons argued, was the fear that Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Specifically they claimed that Hussein had nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons capable of wreaking great havoc, especially if he used them against Israel. Hussein had in fact used chemical weapons during his war with Iran in the 1980s, and against the Kurds, an ethnic minority group who opposed his government in northern Iraq in 1988.
Following the Gulf War, inspectors from the United Nations Special Commission and International Atomic Energy Agency had located and destroyed stockpiles of Iraqi weapons. Those arguing for a new Iraqi invasion insisted that Saddam Hussein had been able to hide nuclear weapons. President Bush himself told the nation in October 2002 that the United States was “facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof—the smoking gun—that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.”
The head of the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, Hanx Blix, dismissed these claims. Blix argued that while Saddam Hussein was not being entirely forthright, he did not appear to be in possession of WMDs. Despite Blix’s findings and his own earlier misgivings, Secretary of State Colin Powell argued in 2003 before the United Nations General Assembly that Hussein had violated UN resolutions. Much of his evidence relied on secret information provided by an informant that was later proven to be false. On March 17, 2003, the United States cut off all relations with Iraq. Two days later, in a coalition with Great Britain, Australia, and Poland, the United States began Operation Iraqi Freedom with an invasion of Iraq.
Other arguments supporting the invasion noted the ease with which the operation could be accomplished. In February 2002, some in the Department of Defense were suggesting the war would be “a cakewalk.” In November, reference to the short and successful First Gulf War, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld told the American people it was absurd, as some were claiming, that the conflict would degenerate into a long, drawn-out quagmire. “Five days or five weeks or five months, but it certainly isn’t going to last any longer than that,” he insisted. “It won’t be a World War III.” And, just days before the start of combat operations in 2003, Vice President Cheney announced that American forces would likely “be greeted as liberators,” and the war would be over in “weeks rather than months.” Early in the conflict, these predictions seemed to be coming true. The march into Bagdad went fairly smoothly. Americans back home watched on television as American soldiers and the Iraqi people worked together to topple statues of Saddam Hussein around the capital.
The reality, however, was far more complex. 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 invading their homeland and killing their fellow citizens.
The destruction of Saddam Hussein’s regime had other unintended consequences. Iraq is a large country with many different groups of people. There are Sunni and Shia Muslims within its borders. 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 independence from the central government. While he was in power, Hussein had ruled as a dictator and kept all of these groups in line with force. Without his unifying presence, they all began jockeying for power.
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.
Bush and has advisors had not anticipated a long war and had not prepared for a long period of occupation. They had also not prepared for the inevitable problems of law and order, or for the violent conflicts that emerged between groups within Iraq who began to compete for power after Saddam Hussein was gone. Bush proudly announced victory in May 2003, on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln with a banner proclaiming Mission Accomplished prominently displayed behind him, but the celebration proved premature. Although Bush stated at the time, “Our mission continues” and “We have difficult work to do in Iraq,” he also stated that it was the end to major combat operations in Iraq. Bush never uttered the phrase “Mission Accomplished.” However, Bush’s assertion and the sign itself haunted his presidency as fighting in Iraq continued. The vast majority of casualties, both military and civilian, occurred after the speech.
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Americans had rallied around their president, giving Bush approval ratings of 90%. Even following the first few months of the Iraq War, his approval rating remained historically high at approximately 70%. But as the 2004 presidential election approached, opposition to the war in Iraq began to grow. The president was persistently dogged by rising criticism of the violence of the Iraq War and the fact that his administration’s claims of WMDs had been greatly overstated. In the end, no such weapons were ever found.
These criticisms were amplified by growing international concern over the treatment of prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. American authorities did not want to bring captured terrorist suspects from Afghanistan to the United States because they would be subject to American law and guaranteed a right to lawyers and a trial. Nor did they want to leave these potential terrorists in Afghanistan or Iraq where they feared local authorities might set them free. Instead, 779 prisoners were transported to the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, the last bit of land on Cuba the United States controlled. Many people in the United States and around the world criticized the Bush administration for finding a loophole around the law. Criticism when further when it was revealed that the prisoners were being tortured in order to extract information. For Americans who had been tortured as prisoners in Vietnam, including Senator John McCain, finding out that their own nation was repeating that terrible practice came as a shock and tremendous disappointment. When Barack Obama ran for president in 2008, he explicitly promised to end the practice and close the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay. Although torture did stop, the camp remained open throughout both his and Donald Trump’s presidencies. As of January 2021, 40 prisoners were still held there, although President Biden announced that we wanted to close the camp.
There was also widespread disgust when photographs surfaced showing the unauthorized torture of Iraqis by American troops at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Just as the United States had lost moral authority after the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam, America was losing its moral authority to fight for freedom and justice in the War on Terror.
Despite these challenges, George W. Bush won reelection against Senator John Kerry in 2004. Bush’s reelection meant that the occupations of both Afghanistan and Iraq continued.
THE IRAQI INSURGENCY
In March 2004, an ambush by Iraqi insurgents of a convoy of private military contractors from Blackwater USA and the subsequent torture and mutilation of the four captured mercenaries shocked the American public. But the event also highlighted the growing insurgency against the American occupation, and the escalating sectarian conflict between competing groups of Iraqis. Just as importantly, the American campaign in Iraq had diverted resources from the war against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan where troops were no closer to capturing Osama bin Laden than they had been years before.
As the United States and our ally the United Kingdom tried to secure Iraq and enable the development of a new government, foreign fighters from around the Middle East as well as al-Qaeda in Iraq, an affiliated al-Qaeda, added to the anti-American and anti-British insurgency. As the insurgency grew there was a distinct change in targeting. No longer were American and British troops the primary targets. The insurgents began attacking the new Iraqi Security Forces the Americans had been training and hundreds of Iraqi civilians and police officers were killed in a series of massive 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.
The Americans found themselves in a situation eerily similar to the Vietnam War. Soldiers were looking for enemy fighters who blended in with the civilians. Although some of the insurgents fought in units, Americans grew frustrated as they read reports of casualties in battles to clear insurgents from towns that had supposedly been pacified just months before.
Hopes for a quick end to the insurgency and a withdrawal of American troops were dashed as suicide bombers struck at targets throughout Iraq. To counter the growing unrest, President Bush proposed a surge of 21,500 more troops, a jobs program for Iraqis, and $1.2 billion for reconstruction programs. He hoped the combination of increased security and the rebuilding of Iraq would win of the hearts and minds of the people. Pressure on the United States to make their strategy work was compounded as the United Kingdom withdrew its forces. The war had become so unpopular there that politicians simply quit the job of trying to stabilize Iraq and left the task to the United States.
The Iraq War was a significant issue in the 2008 presidential campaign, especially in the Democratic primary race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. When they were both senators, Clinton had voted to approve President Bush’s proposal to invade Iraq, whereas Obama had opposed it. By 2008, many Democratic primary voters had turned against the war entirely, and although Clinton also took a position against continuing the war, her earlier vote hurt her at the polls. In the general election, the Republican candidate, John McCain had a difficult time countering Obama’s claim that the war in Afghanistan had been justified in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, whereas the war in Iraq had been a mistake.
True to his campaign rhetoric, after winning election, President Obama announced a plan to slowly withdraw American troops from Iraq and turn over the nation’s security to the Iraqi army they had worked so hard to train. In December of 2011, the last American combat units came home, leaving only a small group of advisors.
In the summer of 2014, President Obama announced the return of American forces to Iraq, but only in the form of air support in an effort to halt the advance of the Islamic State, or ISIS terrorist army, render humanitarian aid to stranded refugees and stabilize the political situation. A civil war between ISIS and the central government continued for the next three years, until ISIS was crushed near the end of 2017. As of 2020, Iraq was mostly peaceful and the Iraqi parliament voted to request that all foreign troops leave their country.
President Obama also kept his campaign promise to fully prosecute the hunt for terrorists in Afghanistan. Like Bush had done in Iraq, Obama implemented a surge of troops in Afghanistan to fight against Taliban insurgents who threatened to undermine the central government America supported. One great challenge in Afghanistan remained the fact that Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the September 11 attacks, remained at large. After the initial invasion of Afghanistan in 2002, he had escaped into the mountains. Finally, in 2011, spy agencies located him hidden in a house in neighboring Pakistan. In April 2011, President Obama ordered a covert operation to kill or capture America’s most wanted man, and on May 2, a somber president announced that Navy SEALs had successfully flown into Pakistan without being detected, killed bin Laden, and buried his body at sea.
A full three years later, and five years after becoming president, Obama declared that combat operations in Afghanistan were over. Despite that, over 8,000 American troops remained in the country to help fight terrorists and provide training for the Afghan security forces. President Trump continued to reduce this number, but still maintained an American presence in the country, hoping to prevent the return of the Taliban to power. In 2021, newly-elected President Biden announced that all American troops 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.
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.
The years of warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan have brought the United States few rewards. In Iraq, 4,475 American soldiers died and 32,220 were wounded. In Afghanistan, the toll through the beginning of 2021 was 2,420 dead and 19,950 wounded. Iraqi and Afghani deaths, including both combatants and civilians could be as high as 2 million. By some estimates, the total monetary cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could easily reach $4 trillion and the cost of providing medical care for the veterans could easily surpass $8 billion. For the generation whose taxes will pay this bill, the cost to the nation’s wealth and prosperity is still unknown.
PRIVACY AND SECURITY
The attacks of September 11 awakened many to the reality that the end of the Cold War did not mean an end to violent threats from abroad. Just like the Red Scare of the 1950s, some Americans grew fearful of possible enemies in their midst and there was a rise in hate crimes against Muslim Americans. Fearing that terrorists might strike within the nation’s borders again, and aware of the chronic lack of cooperation among different federal law enforcement agencies, President Bush created the Office of Homeland Security in October 2001. The next year, Congress passed the Homeland Security Act, creating the Department of Homeland Security, which centralized control over a number of different government functions in order to better defend against threats at home. For most Americans, the most noticeable consequence of the War on Terror is the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). 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 Bush administration also pushed the USA Patriot Act through Congress, which was intended to give law enforcement agencies the powers they needed to discover terrorist plots and stop attacks before they happened. For some, too much privacy was handed away to the government with the passage of the Patriot Act. For example, the law enabled government agencies to monitor citizens’ e-mails and phone conversations without a warrant. Beginning in 2002, the Bush administration implemented a wide-ranging program of warrantless domestic wiretapping run by the National Security Agency (NSA). The program ended when it was exposed by leaks from within the agency and the New York Times published an account of what the government was doing.
The struggle between the government’s desire for secrecy and the public’s right to know what its government is doing in their name has been heightened by the War on Terror. In 2013, a government contractor named Edward Snowden stole a trove of intelligence files and turned them over to the press. In June 2013, the first of Snowden’s documents were published simultaneously by The Washington Post and The Guardian in London, attracting considerable public attention. The disclosure continued throughout 2013, and a small portion of the estimated full cache of documents was later published by other media outlets worldwide, most notably The New York Times in the United States.
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.
These media reports have shed light on several secret treaties in which the United States and its allies agreed to share information about their citizens. For many, Snowden’s actions and the publication of the documents he stole reminded them of the Pentagon Papers, which had also revealed government secrecy and lies about the Vietnam War. For the Obama Administration, Snowden’s actions were dangerous. President Barack Obama made a public appearance on national television where he told Americans that “We don’t have a domestic spying program” and that “There is no spying on Americans”. Prosecutors charged Snowden with espionage and theft of government property. He fled to Russia where Vladimir Putin granted him asylum. For those who support the government’s efforts to root out terrorists, Snowden is a traitor. For those who believe the government has taken too much power, Snowden is celebrated as a hero for exposing illegal government activities.
In addition to international terrorism and home-grown politically motivated bombings, the nation has recently been plagued with a uniquely American form of terror: mass shootings. The Washington Post began collecting and sharing statistics about mass shootings beginning with the murder of 18 people at the University of Texas in 1966. However, there were only a few such incidents each year, with relatively few casualties, until the 1990s. Beginning with the 1999 attack by two students on Columbine High School in Colorado in which 17 people died, such incidents have become more frequent and more deadly. In the past ten years there have been multiple mass shootings each year, not only at schools, but also at workplaces, theaters, nightclubs, military bases, and churches.
The deadliest school shootings were in 2007 at Virginia Tech in which 33 people died and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 when 28 people were killed. The deadliest of all attacks was the 2017 Las Vegas attack during a concert in which 61 people were murdered and 849 more were injured. Second must deadly was the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting which left 50 people dead.
Although mass shootings are covered extensively in the media, they account for only a small fraction of gun-related deaths in the United States. In 2018, 39,740 people died from gun-related injuries. Of these deaths 61% were suicides, 13,958 homicides, and over 1,000 deaths due to accidents or negligence. Additionally, another 115,000 people were injured. According to a study published in 2016, compared to 22 other high-income nations, the American gun-related murder rate is 25 times higher. Although it has half the population of the other 22 nations combined, the United States had 82% of all gun deaths, 90% of all women killed with guns, 91% of children under 14 and 92% of young people between ages 15 and 24 killed with guns.
In 2020, Gallup reported 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 urban areas and frequently associated with gang violence, although as the highly publicized mass shootings show, gun ownership and gun violence is spread through the nation.
THE SECOND AMENDMENT
Naturally, many people have sought ways to reduce gun violence, most recently by trying to pass laws that reduce access to guns. However, guns have a special place in the nation’s history and politics, stemming back to the founding of the country. Because Americans owned guns in the 1770s, they were able to form militias and fight against British occupation. Eventually, an army of citizens defeated the mighty British army and the United States came into existence. The Founding Fathers who wrote the new nation’s Constitution recognized the importance of the relationship between a government and citizens with weapons. In order to prevent the new government from abusing the rights of the people, they added the Second Amendment to the Constitution, guaranteeing the right of Americans to own guns. The Second Amendment reads: “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, the Second Amendment has been mostly taken for granted. Americans were farmers and explorers and gun ownership was common. Recently, however, as cities have grown and urban crime increased, Americans have started rethinking the meaning of the Second Amendment.
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 defined by two primary opposing ideologies about civilian gun ownership. People who advocate for gun control support increasing regulation of gun ownership. These people point to the first half of the Second Amendment, noting that it guarantees the right to bear arms in order to participate in a well-regulated militia. For these people, the Amendment clearly provides a reason for gun ownership. Guns that are unnecessary for the purpose of joining a militia should, they argue, be restricted or banned.
Alternatively, people who advocate for gun rights point to the second half of the Amendment as evidence that the government has no power to limit gun ownership. The Supreme Court normally settles disagreements about the meaning of the Constitution, but has only recently taken any cases about gun rights, and when they did, they sided with the view that gun ownership is a fundamental right. In the District of Columbia v. Heller decision in 2008, the Court struck down a ban on handguns on the basis that the Second Amendment does not give the government the right to pick and choose which types of guns people are allowed to own. However, the Court also stated in the Heller decision that the right to bear arms was not unlimited. It remains to be seen what restrictions they might be willing to uphold in future decisions.
In other nations where the right to own guns is not written the constitution, mass shootings have resulted in quick political action. After a mass shooting at a mosque in New Zealand, that nation’s government banned almost all forms of military-style weapons. In Australia, a mass shooting resulted in an almost universal ban on gun ownership. In the United Kingdom, gun ownership is so rare that even police officers do not carry guns.
In the United States today, the National Rifle Association (NRA) serves as a powerful protector of gun rights. They are a well-funded interest group that supports political candidates and works to affect public opinion about gun ownership. The NRA started their lobbying practices in conjunction with the conservative revolution in the 1970s and has a mutually supportive relationship with the Republican Party. Most Republicans support gun rights, and the NRA has been an important donor to many Republican politicians. In 2016 alone they spent $412 million on political activities. Like the Moral Majority, the NRA produces voter information materials that encourage people to make decisions on Election Day based on a candidate’s stance on gun rights.
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.
After the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida that left 17 dead, student survivors organized a movement to demand passage of gun control measures. Many of the students blamed the NRA and the politicians who accept money from them for preventing enactment of any gun control proposals after previous shootings. An NRA spokesman responded by defending gun ownership and blaming the shooting on the FBI and the media. The NRA also said in a statement that the incident was proof that more guns were immediately required in schools in the hands both security guards and teachers in order to “harden” them against similar assaults in the future. A Florida law passed in the wake of the shooting, which includes a provision to ban the sale of firearms to people under 21 was immediately challenged in federal court by the NRA on the grounds that it is “violating the constitutional rights of 18- to 21-year-olds.”
Based on events of the past 20 years, both the danger of gun violence, and the debate over gun ownership seem to be part of America’s future.
Over time, Americans have held different ideas about what it means to be free. When the nation was founded, freedom meant the freedom from foreign domination. In the 1800s, freedom was about the right to move west and start a new life in the untamed wilderness. In the 1930s, Americans wanted to be free from hunger and turned to their government to provide a New Deal to ensure this right. In the Cold War, we wanted our government to protect our existence. We wanted freedom from death in a nuclear war.
In the past two decades, freedom has again changed meanings. Franklin Roosevelt’s old “freedom from fear” has taken on new significance as we want our government to protect us from terrorism. Of course, as resistance to surveillance measures such as the USA Patriot Act, and resistance to gun regulation both show, we do not want so much protection that our freedom of privacy or right to protect ourselves is infringed.
Thus, the War on Terror has had many casualties. We have given up some of our privacy and some of our rights to purchase more security. We have sacrificed billions of dollars and spend thousands of lives in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in an effort to root out those who attacked us. In the process, the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and stories of torture have damaged 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 security we have won? Are you willing 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 knew none of your fellow students 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.