(Editor’s note: This essay introduces a Symposium published for the twentieth anniversary of September 11th; co-organized by Just Security and the Reiss Center on Law and Security.)

This Saturday will mark two decades since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The United States has just ended the most enduring and concrete manifestation of the sprawling response to those attacks, completing its military withdrawal from Afghanistan. But after two decades of ever-expanding conflict extending well beyond Afghanistan, a state of perpetual war has become a “new normal.” Much of the American public cannot identify with whom the United States remains at war. Questions that go to the heart of how the United States conducts counterterrorism efforts in the post-9/11 era, and whether and how it will uphold the rule of law in so doing, persist. Has the U.S. Congress authorized the armed conflicts the United States is fighting today, and what are the boundaries of these legal authorities? More fundamentally, is military force necessary to counter terrorism today, and if so, what should U.S. military engagement look like after the post-9/11 experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan? How should society deal with continuing radicalization to violent extremism, both domestically and abroad? And in designing policies to address current challenges, we cannot forget that the worst wounds created by the so-called “global war on terror” still fester: Why has there been no meaningful accountability for the most egregious abuses of the post-9/11 period, and what can be done now to address their legacies? How can we heal from the ways in which perpetual war has impacted American society at home and reshaped U.S. policy abroad? In concrete terms, what would a future without “forever war” look like?

This week Just Security and the Reiss Center on Law and Security are launching a series called “How Perpetual War Has Changed Us: Reflections on the Anniversary of 9/11,” providing an opportunity for leading thinkers and practitioners to reflect on these issues. Amidst the multitude of remembrances and reflections that will surely mark this solemn anniversary, we seek to focus on the legal and policy choices that, decades later, have created the new normal – one that was not inevitable, but which has profoundly reshaped the current state of security and rights. And we look to the future of how forever war might end – and what will be left in its wake.

We recognize that grappling with the painful U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan after 20 years of war is itself a vital part of reflecting on 9/11. We have been engaging in that conversation with Just Security’s earlier series, Reflections on Afghanistan on the Eve of Withdrawal, and ongoing coverage of the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan. We also know that this 20th anniversary of 9/11 is neither the beginning nor the end of our obligation to examine the response to those attacks. We invite readers to revisit some of the seminal work done in the past by both of our institutions, including Just Security articles such as Rebecca Ingber’s Legally Sliding Into War; a symposium on Racing National Security edited by Matiangai Sirleaf; Tess Bridgeman, Ryan Goodman, Stephen Pomper and Steve Vladeck’s Principles for a 2021 Authorization for Use of Military Force; and the Reiss Center’s War Powers Resolution Reporting Project, created by Tess Bridgeman. And this Thursday, September 9 at 7pm ET, Just Security and the Knight First Amendment Institute will co-host a panel discussion with senior leaders of U.S. human rights organizations who steered their organizations through the post-9/11 period. The topic involves a critical self-reflection of the work of U.S. human rights organizations during this period. You can register here.

In the coming days, as part of our “Perpetual War” series, we will publish pieces by scholars, civil society advocates, former senior government officials; authors with both personal stories and analytic expertise to provide at this historical juncture. We asked contributors to address issues such as the consequences of responding to terrorism in a war versus crime paradigm; how the war came home to the United States in terms of what a “forever war” footing meant for our domestic laws and institutions and for our social and political fabric; how the national security apparatus that was built after 9/11 affected different American communities, especially with respect to how surveillance and immigration policies affected communities of color; how civil society advocates responded to these challenges; and, finally, how perpetual war might come to an end, and what are the major unanswered questions for the future.

The series will include the following essays: 

  • Rebecca Hamilton – presenting a fictional reimagining of what the 20th anniversary of the attacks could have looked like if the United States had employed a criminal law paradigm in its response (published here); 
  • Jameel Jaffer – with a critical reflection on what rights organizations may have gotten wrong (published here); 
  • Luke Hartig – on concrete principles to end the forever war (published here); 
  • Faiza Patel – on the costs of suspicionless surveillance for communities of color and political dissent (published here); 
  • Asha Rangappa – on overcorrections in intelligence and law enforcement after 9/11 (published here); 
  • Heather Aliano – with a personal reflection on how the wars abroad come home for service members and their families (published here); 
  • Fionnuala Ní Aoláin – on how the institutionalization of counterterrorism impacted rights advocacy (published here); 
  • Hina Shamsi, Priyanka Motaparthy and Scott Roehm – on how the Biden administration can end three rights-abusing post-9/11 policies (published here); 
  • Camille Mackler – on immigration enforcement, national security and the transformations of DHS (published here); 
  • Ian Moss – with a concrete and thorough examination of how to close Guantanamo (published here); 
  • Nicholas Rasmussen – on the need to pivot towards a whole-of-society approach to address violent extremism today, especially given the rise of radicalization on social media (published here); 
  • Brian Finucane and Stephen Pomper – on how a wartime paradigm changed the executive branch and its lawyers (published here); and 
  • Tess Bridgeman – on the consequences of using armed force as a response to the 9/11 attacks and how we might shift out of a war paradigm (published here).