Fifteen years ago today, I was on the air broadcasting as the national affairs correspondent for Pacifica Network News, which includes WBAI(99.5 FM) in New York City. Because our signal was transmitted from the top of the Empire State Building and not the World Trade Center like so many other broadcasters, we were able to stay on the air.
In the years since, I have chronicled the struggle of both civilians and first responders to make sense of that day and to deal with the chronic health impacts that still continue to produce premature deaths. This further notice burden is particularly borne by the NYPD, the FDNY and the entire first responder community.
In the hundred days that followed the attack, I had to use a ferry to commute into lower Manhattan, even as fires still burned at the World Trade Center site. The smell of the death and fiery destruction from that day, when our bubble burst, hung in the air for months.
The blend of National Guard troops and heavily armed police officers that tightly controlled the flow of commuters gave us the sense that even as we tried to go about our lives again, another assault might come at any moment.
Just going to work or living your life in lower Manhattan became a political statement of defiance. As Americans, we did not see it coming. How could anybody hate us so much? After all, we are the kindest and most generous people on the planet, or so our media tells us repeatedly. We are exceptional.
Here at home, in the decade and a half since, America is still flinching, anticipating the next body blow. We are kept on edge with subsequent murderous attacks in London, Mumbai, Paris, San Bernadino and Orlando.
All of last week, and throughout this weekend, we are pickled in that corporate news media brine, the one that casts the United States of America as just a mere victim of ruthless terrorists on 9/11.
According to this narrative, which always starts on September 11th, the terrorists just want to kill us because “they hate our freedoms." As a consequence, we have to be ready to kill anybody, anywhere in the world, who threatens our security.
Due process for this summary execution, a clandestine star chamber will reach their verdict based on the latest they hear from the so-called “U.S. intelligence community."
This would be the same brain trust that got Iraq so wrong and continued to misinform President Obama to the point where, back in early 2014, he called ISIS little more than a “JV team” as a fighting force. A few weeks later, ISIS took Falluja and sections of Ramadi.
The reality is that the U.S. intelligence community has repeatedly failed to see the next big thing coming our way in that part of the world. Just since 9/11, they've missed the Iraqi insurgency in 2003, the continent re-defining Arab Spring, the implications of deposing Libya’s Gaddafi, the recent collapse of the Iraqi Army, the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the rise of ISIS.
Consider the New York Times reporting last year on a Department of Defense Inspector General investigation into serious allegations from intelligence analysts that the nation’s military fed President Obama doctored intelligence that painted an overly optimistic picture of the capability of Iraqi troops and the effectiveness of the U.S. bombing of ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
So here we are, 15 years after 9/11, with the U.S. still stuck in Iraq and Afghanistan, now with boots on the ground in Syria. We are in this post-9/11 perpetual war campaign that ignores strong evidence that the war on terror actually proliferates it.
Case in point was the recent NBC “Commander-in-Chief” veterans forum, which featured GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. What we got were questions about Clinton’s email and Trump’s bromance with Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
The forum existed in a parallel universe where there would be no accountability for the last fifteen years of failed U.S. policy, lest it be perceived as being disrespectful to the veterans. Just as with the recent 22 pushup movement (a challenge to do 22 push-ups to draw attention to the fact that 22 veterans commit suicide everyday), there would be no fundamental questions about why soldiers had been put in harm's way so frequently in the first place.
In the years since we launched our post 9/11 military response, our efforts have led to the collapse and weakening of nation-states throughout the region, spawned a new generation of terrorists, contributed to the death of as many as 1.3 million civilians and set off the greatest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.
It has also resulted in huge swaths of territory where human settlement is now impossible. According to the Journal of Mine Action, in 15 countries in the Middle East and North Africa there are close to 60 million landmines and unexploded remnant ordinance sprinkled throughout the landscape.
While not all of this legacy ordinance is the result of post-9/11 military action, there’s no doubt the pace of their proliferation has accelerated since our post-September 11th military response.
This ample supply of readily available explosive munitions just laying around is estimated at weighing 16,000 plus tons. In addition to posing an around the clock danger to civilians, especially children, the stuff can be re-purposed. That’s what happened back in 2003, when recycled explosives were used in the attack on the United Nations Headquarters in Baghdad that killed Sergio Viera de Mello, the highly regarded and effective United Nations envoy.
The war without end has also helped to induce ecological destruction in places that were already fragile to begin with, where the impacts of global warming were already being keenly felt. It has collapsed public health systems and taken a particular toll on children in the Mid-East-Northern Africa region, which will no doubt help recruit yet another generation of anti-Crusader fighters.
This weekend, as our media serves up more in-depth portraits of some of the more than 2,000 civilians killed in the attacks, it is my fervent prayer that at some point we have the courage to open our aperture wider. We need to also hold in our mind’s eye the faces of the exponentially larger number of civilians that have perished around the world since the horrific day in September of 2001.
We need to do as author and historian Colonel Andrew Bacevich suggests and wind our narrative to back in 1980, when President Jimmy Carter declared his doctrine that the U.S. would use military force to protect its “national interests” in the Persian Gulf.
“For well over 30 years now, intensive and continuing U.S. military engagement in various quarters of the Islamic world deserves to be seen not simply as one damn thing after another, but as one war, a war with many facets, conducted in many theaters, but nonetheless, one war,” Bacevich told a lecture audience at Boston University, where he is a professor emeritus, back in 2014.
In the years since Carter's Doctrine, Bacevich notes the U.S. has taken some kind of military action in Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Libya, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Bosnia, Kosovo, Yemen, Sudan, Somali, Pakistan and Syria. “The list just keeps getting longer,” said Bacevich.
Bacevich, a West Point graduate, served in the Vietnam War and right up through the early 1990s, and says the U.S. is in deep denial about its failures in prosecuting its war on terrorism. “We have not won this war,” Bacevich told his audience. “We are not winning this war and simply pressing on is unlikely to produce more positive results this year or the year after.”
Bacevich, author of several books including “The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism,” maintains that the forces benefiting from the perpetual war on terror are “too powerful and too entrenched” and include a vast array of contractors, lobbyists, think tanks and even elements of the academy itself which prosper by virtue of the status quo.
“The mantra of the national security lobby is this, ‘The world of today is more dangerous than it was yesterday and all signs indicate that it will still be more dangerous tomorrow,'” said Bacevich.
And what about holding the national security apparatus accountable for their horrific track record so far? Shouldn't results matter?
“To insist on accountability is to go out on a limb,” said Bacevich, whose son, an Army first lieutenant, was killed in Iraq in 2007. “You would open yourself up to the charge of not supporting the troops or of being an isolationist or of not believing in American global leadership and, worst of all, in not believing in American exceptionalism's unique calling to save the world.”
Bacevich tells Salon his latest book, "America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History," is an effort to open the American aperture to see "among other things, that the U.S. military had been mucking around in the region for two decades before 9/11. Those prior U.S. efforts managed both to instigate resentment, thereby promoting violent jihadism, and to reveal U.S. vulnerabilities, thereby inviting attack.
"Americans can choose to believe that 9/11 came out of the blue, just as they choose even today to believe that the events of Dec. 7, 1941 came out of nowhere," Bacevich wrote in an e-mail. "But sustaining that belief requires an exercise in historical amnesia — forgetting all that went before. Sadly, Americans have a remarkable aptitude for forgetting what they find inconvenient to remember."