There never was a "war on terrorism." It wasn't "terrorism" that crashed airliners into buildings on that brilliant Tuesday morning. The attacks were carried out by a 19-member assault team from al-Qaeda, a terrorist organization then being sheltered by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. There most definitely was a war against al-Qaeda, and we won.
Within four months, U.S. invasion forces had routed the Taliban and scattered what was left of al-Qaeda to the four winds. Maybe that was the moment we should have recognized our victory. Maybe it was March 1, 2003, when Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the man most responsible for designing and orchestrating the 9/11 attacks, was captured. Or maybe it was the moment in 2004 when Afghanistan's fledgling democracy held its first presidential election.
By the middle of the decade, we had accomplished every rational goal of the war that 9/11 began. Al-Qaeda's leader and founder, Osama bin Laden, was still at large, but this meant we needed to conduct a continuing manhunt, not a continuing war. We should have recognized this distinction.
We couldn't, though, because George W. Bush and Dick Cheney plunged us into an unnecessary war in Iraq. Saddam Hussein was one of the most bloodthirsty, power-mad despots on the planet, but he had nothing to do with 9/11. He had no weapons of mass destruction. Even if he had possessed WMD, there was no reason to think he would target the United States.
Wars are so much easier to start than end. We're still in Afghanistan, we're still in Iraq, and we're still paying a terrible price for refusing to accept the obvious fact that we've already won the war that 9/11 compelled us to fight.
The most painful cost, of course, is the more than 6,000 deaths and tens of thousands of grievous injuries that our armed forces have suffered. Other military families have endured multiple deployments and "stop-loss" extensions; returning veterans are at elevated risk for stress-related disorders, divorce, unemployment, even homelessness.
The hundreds of billions of dollars that have been poured into the sinkhole of perpetual war contribute substantially to the nation's enervating fiscal woes. But the problem isn't the squandering of resources. It's that we're stuck in a dour, wartime mindset that in many ways resembles clinical depression.
We can agree on what needs to be done to get the country back on a rising trajectory. We need to improve the schools. We need to refurbish the infrastructure. We need to jump-start the economy and also reduce our long-term debt. We need to agree on ways to accomplish this agenda through vigorous political debate -- not grinding grudge matches in which the other party's destruction is given priority over the nation's well-being.
Yet here we are -- for all intents and purposes, paralyzed. Voters swing violently to the left, then two years later they swing violently to the right; if they could, one recent poll said, they'd kick out every single member of Congress and start over. I'm confident they wouldn't like the replacements any better.
It's hard to overstate the extent to which the 9/11 attacks magnified the nation's anxieties -- not just about terrorism, but more generally about the future. Perpetual war produces a state of mind in which differences of opinion become questions of patriotism, adversaries become enemies, and ideological territory must be defended inch by inch.
Now, after 10 long years, perhaps we can finally get unstuck. Bin Laden is dead, his terrorist organization in shreds. The al-Qaeda that attacked us on 9/11 is defeated.
This does not mean there will never be another terrorist attack -- or even that attacks might be attempted by miscreants who claim to fight under the al-Qaeda banner. For years to come, perhaps indefinitely, intelligence and military assets will have to be deployed to try to detect and prevent new atrocities. This activity doesn't yet have a name -- but whatever it is, it isn't war.
The state of war that the nation entered after 9/11 should have ended years ago. Let's end it now. Remember the way this all started, look again at those horrific images from 9/11, and then remember: We won.
Eugene Robinson is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email him at email@example.com.