Following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the United States responded with military force intended to target those responsible. More broadly, it invoked extraordinary powers reserved for what should be exceptional: war. The legal and policy framework created to facilitate that response resulted in a cascade of human rights and law of war violations, ranging from indefinite detention at the Guantanamo Bay prison, to systemic torture, to “special registration” targeting people based on religion and national origin, to warrantless surveillance, to discriminatory watchlisting, to now seemingly endless conflicts often waged in secretive and unaccountable ways.
In the name of U.S. national security and counterterrorism, our government has violated human rights; damaged the rule of law, international cooperation, and the United States’ reputation; set a dangerous precedent for other nations; fueled conflicts and massive human displacement; contributed to militarized and violent approaches to domestic policing; diverted limited resources from more effective approaches; and, most consequentially, destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives, primarily of civilian, Muslim, Black, and Brown people.
The longer the current war-based legal and policy architecture persists, the more corrosive it becomes—from both a human rights and a national security perspective. Indeed, as our colleague Alka Pradhan wrote recently:
The Trump administration’s response to the Portland protests and its manifestly bigoted, discriminatory “Muslim ban” policies, along with the more general destruction of asylum rights, among others, has predictably woven together different threads of post-9/11 national security policies (with widely disparate impacts at home and abroad) into a single ugly tapestry.
It’s time to pull hard on the threads of that tapestry, to unravel and understand them, and to weave a new rights-respecting approach to our collective human security.
One year from today marks the 20th anniversary of 9/11. A president addressing the nation on such a solemn occasion should be able to tell the American people not only that there has been a modicum of justice for the attacks, but also that American leaders have dismantled and corrected the architecture that has, for most of the past two decades, made true justice impossible—and caused so much harm to so many people at home and abroad.
The necessary shift to a new approach remains a tall order, but with swift and decisive action, it is achievable.
In the posts that follow, we and our colleagues lay out steps the executive branch can take to rethink and reshape the United States’ approach to certain of the key issues. Our recommendations for fundamental change to uphold fundamental rights follow the rough chronological order of abusive U.S. government policies and practices. We start with the need to end indefinite military detention at Guantanamo, and to ensure systemic and unaccountable torture never becomes U.S. state policy again. We address the unlawful, secretive, and unaccountable use of lethal force continuing in multiple parts of the world. And we close with the need for structural overhaul of war powers and a restoration of checks and balances to end executive branch abuses.
U.S. national security policy and practice must be consistent with its legal, human, and civil rights obligations and the moral authority that the United States has long claimed on these issues. It can be. Here’s how:
Part II: Uphold the Prohibition on Torture
Part IV: End “Endless Wars”