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The costs of the war on terror after 9/11: $6 trillion and 900,000 deaths

www.vox.com
8 min read
standard
The enormous costs and elusive benefits of the war on terror.
On the evening of September 11, 2001, hours after two hijacked airliners had destroyed the World Trade Center towers and a third had hit the Pentagon building, President George W. Bush announced that the country was embarking on a new kind of war.

"America and our friends and allies join with all those who want peace and security in the world, and we stand together to win the war against terrorism," Bush announced in a televised address to the nation.

It was Bush's first use of the term that would come to define his presidency and deeply shape those of his three successors. The global war on terror, as the effort came to be known, was one of the most expansive and far-reaching policy initiatives in modern American history, and certainly the biggest of the 2000s.

It saw the US invade and depose the governments of two nations and engage in years- or decades-long occupations of each; the initiation of a new form of warfare via drones spanning thousands of miles of territory from Pakistan to Somalia to the Philippines; the formalization of a system of detention without charge and pervasive torture of accused militants; numerous smaller raids by special forces teams around the world; and major changes to air travel and border security in the US proper.

The "war on terror" is a purposely vague term. President Barack Obama famously rejected it in a 2013 speech — favoring instead "a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists."

But 9/11 signaled the beginning of a distinct policy regime from the one that preceded it, and a regime that exists in many forms to the present day, even with the US exit from Afghanistan.

Over the past 20 years, the costs of this new policy regime — costs in terms of lives lost, money spent, people and whole communities displaced, bodies tortured — have become clear. It behooves us, then, to try to answer a simple yet vast question: Was it worth it?

A good-faith effort to answer this question…
Dylan Matthews
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