Here on the anniversary of 9/11, we are regularly reminded that many people have basically forgotten the event. They've forgotten the reaction and mood of the country at the time, and the horror that gripped most people as they watched the news on television. They've forgotten the complete shutdown of the civilian air transport system and the fear of follow-up attacks. They've forgotten the resolve of most Americans that this time we had to strike back hard against terrorism, instead of just launching a few cruise missiles and going about our business. And they've forgotten the strong consensus that we should stop waiting around to be attacked, and instead eliminate threats before they reached the potential to cause another 9/11.
As the years after 9/11/2001 passed, there has been an ongoing effort to minimize the attack, to pretend that it just wasn't that bad, and to argue that the U.S. overreacted. The contention that the U.S. overreacted to a devastating surprise attack on its greatest city is both idiotic and historically ignorant. Far from overreacting, the U.S. unleashed a limited, measured war in Afghanistan. It even identified elements within Afghanistan that it could work with, rather than holding the entire country collectively responsible for hosting Al Qaeda -- which would have been standard procedure in earlier eras. Even with the desire for vengeance fresh, and with America largely united behind the president, we did not exert anywhere near the full power of the U.S. military. Instead we took great pains to protect the innocent and minimize collateral damage.
And then there was Iraq. Iraq under Saddam Hussein was an open enemy of the U.S. Regime change in Iraq was supported by major figures and presidents from both parties well before 9/11. Before 9/11 we were conducting an aerial blockade of Iraq, and bombing targets in the country on a regular basis. Attacking Iraq was not only not a overreaction to 9/11, it was a reasonable decision based on intelligence at the time, the fact that Iraq was already an enemy of the U.S., and the aforementioned consensus that the U.S. needed to act in order to eliminate threats before it was too late.
Mistakes, bad assumptions, and all the hindsight about whether different strategies should have been pursued, whether or not Iraq could have been contained without war, and the wisdom of nation-building do not equal an overreaction. If the U.S. had reacted in similar fashion to another lethal surprise attack, Pearl Harbor, there would now be millions of dead Afghans and Iraqis, cities burned to ruins, and huge U.S. armies occupying the region. Pakistan might have millions more dead, and might be dismembered and partially occupied. Iranian interference would have been met with overwhelming force. Syria would probably have been bombed and intimidated into complete cooperation. Here at home, security restrictions would be far tighter; the press would be censored; a draft would have been reinstated; Arab-Americans and other predominantly Muslim minorities would be sitting in internment camps. That's what something that might reasonably be called an "overreaction" might look like -- and that's not even considering the possible use of America's nuclear arsenal.