With another 9/11 anniversary upon us — the first anniversary of the third 9/11 presidency — it’s worth asking some hard questions about how we got here and how we can get out. Does America really want to fight a 100-year war against “Islamic terrorism”? Do we really want another century of killing innocents — always inadvertently, of course! — thereby creating even more future terrorists in the process?
I don’t think so. I really don’t. But we don’t want to think about it, either. And that’s where the real tragedy lies. Because, as things stand now, that’s exactly where we’re headed -- if we’re lucky. A 100-year war fought for no good reason, except our unwillingness to think about it. Even worse — as Syria already illustrates — that war will only inflame multiple other conflicts, each potentially capable of igniting further conflicts in turn. There has to be a better way — and we have to find a way to make it happen.
The war on terror was a choice in response to the terrorist attacks on 9/11. It was a choice that filled some victim’s families with horror. Orlando and Phyllis Rodriguez’s son, Greg, was among those who died, and n open letter they emailed to the New York Times on Sept. 14, 2001, quickly went viral. “Our son Greg is among the many missing from the World Trade Center attack,” it began. “Since we first heard the news, we have shared moments of grief, comfort, hope, despair, fond memories with his wife, the two families, our friends and neighbors, his loving colleagues at Cantor Fitzgerald / ESpeed, and all the grieving families that daily meet at the Pierre Hotel.”
And then it began turning outward:
We see our hurt and anger reflected among everybody we meet. We cannot pay attention to the daily flow of news about this disaster. But we read enough of the news to sense that our government is heading in the direction of violent revenge, with the prospect of sons, daughters, parents, friends in distant lands dying, suffering, and nursing further grievances against us. It is not the way to go. It will not avenge our son's death. Not in our son's name.
Our son died a victim of an inhuman ideology. Our actions should not serve the same purpose. Let us grieve. Let us reflect and pray. Let us think about a rational response that brings real peace and justice to our world. But let us not as a nation add to the inhumanity of our times.
To some, it may have read as hopelessly naïve at the time. But 16 years later, the shoe is on the other foot. It was George W. Bush’s belief that he could bomb his way to peace that has proven hopelessly naïve. In retrospect, it should have been obvious from the beginning. The Rodriguez letter reads like Biblical prophecy.
They were among a disparate group of family members who eventually formed September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, a group whose early history was recounted in the 2003 book, "September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows: Turning Tragedy into Hope for a Better World," edited by David Potorti. The group took its name from the words of Martin Luther King Jr.., “Wars are poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrows.”
On Sept. 17, Orlando and Phyllis Rodriguez wrote again, this time to President Bush:
Your response to this attack does not make us a feel better about our son's death. It makes us feel worse...
This is not the time for empty gestures to make us feel better. It is not the time to act like bullies. We urge you to think about how our government can develop peaceful rational solutions to terrorism, solutions that do not sink us to the inhuman level of terrorists.
But sinking to the terrorists’ level is exactly what we’ve done. It’s now widely agreed that Iraq War was a tragic and terrible mistake, at best. But it’s all too easy — as Barack Obama seemed to do — to balance off the bad or stupid war in Iraq against the smart, good war in Afghanistan. That’s not how the 9/11 families saw it, as described in the book:
It quickly became clear that the United States would be bombing Afghanistan, sooner rather than later. And if the Administration earned accolades for its restraint — waiting weeks, rather than days or hour, to begin — the reality that it would lead to civilian death was undeniable, and deeply troubling to the family members. They had seen firsthand, innocent toddlers traumatized by the loss of a parent. They had witnessed elderly parents weeping for their grown children. They had seen brothers and sisters just like them -- confident, coming into their own, certain of their futures reduced to nothingness. To be touched so closely by violence and death was, for them, to demand an end to the possibility that others would suffer the same fate.
And because the killing was being undertaken in the names of their loved ones and their families, they felt something else: ownership. This war would their war, fought in their names. This gave them the will to speak out. And it was by speaking out that they become known to their communities — and to each other. If September 11 united them in loss, it was the bombing of Afghanistan that united them in their desire to attain justice without killing more innocent people.
Of course it was claimed that we had no choice, that we had to invade Afghanistan in order to capture Osama bin Laden and put him on trial. Well, that worked out well, now, didn’t it? Invading Afghanistan actually enabled his escape.
In early October of that year, Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban said they were prepared to try bin Laden themselves, if the United States provided the Afghan regime with hard evidence against him — already reportedly supplied to our allies. The U.S. quickly rejected the offer. After about a week of bombing, Afghanistan modified its stance, offering to turn bin Laden over to a third party if provided with evidence of bin Laden’s guilt, rather than trying him themselves. Bush rejected this offer as well, on Oct. 14, saying, “There's no need to discuss innocence or guilt. We know he's guilty."
Two days later, Afghanistan dropped the demand for evidence, but, the Guardian reported, “US officials appear to have dismissed the proposal and are instead hoping to engineer a split within the Taliban leadership,” openly abandoning the quest to try bin Laden in favor of other geopolitical goals. Over time, there were further reports of attempted U.S.-Taliban dealmaking, even before 9/11. On the 10th anniversary, for example, Al Jazeera reported that “The Taliban government in Afghanistan offered to present Osama bin Laden for a trial long before the attacks of September 11, 2001, but the US government showed no interest, according to a senior aide to the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar.” That account was confirmed by Robert Grenier, the CIA station chief in Pakistan at the time of 9/11.
All this shows a tepid interest, at best, in putting bin Laden on trial. Instead, the attack was treated as carte blanche to begin pursuing a wide range of geopolitical goals with only the most tenuous relationship to 9/11. Eventually, in his 2002 State of the Union, Bush said of Iraq, Iran and North Korea:
States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger.
Thus, in less than six months, bin Laden had been forgotten. His crime only mattered as a pretext for endless war. His name didn’t even appear once in that speech. But Afghanistan did:
In four short months, our nation has comforted the victims, begun to rebuild New York and the Pentagon, rallied a great coalition, captured, arrested, and rid the world of thousands of terrorists, destroyed Afghanistan's terrorist training camps, saved a people from starvation, and freed a country from brutal oppression.
As Bush described it, the Afghanistan war was already over. Hardly even worth calling a “war” at all. This is how wildly Bush misjudged the world situation at the time, just as he misjudged bin Laden before 9/11, ignoring multiple intelligence warnings of his plans to attack the U.S. and actively rolling back Bill Clinton’s counter-terrorism efforts.
Bush’s fecklessness as a leader was monumental. We tend to forget that, in light of Donald Trump. But America’s problems go much deeper than its individual leaders. Before Bush took office, Clinton had ordered a comprehensive review of emerging national security concerns, carried out by the bipartisan Hart-Rudman Commission, established by the Pentagon in 1998 with a charter to "conduct a comprehensive review of the early 21st Century global security environment, including likely trends and potential 'wild cards'; develop a national security strategy appropriate to that environment and the nation's character; and recommend concomitant changes to the national security apparatus as necessary."
The commission issued three reports, reflecting a three-stage process, first looking at expectations of future changes, then developing a strategy in response, and finally recommending specific changes in organization and commitment of resources to implement the strategy "or, indeed, any strategy that would depart from the embedded routines of the last half-century," as explained in the last report.
Although it’s barely remembered now, it clearly wasn’t meant to be. As Harold Evans wrote in the Guardian, less than a month after 9/11:
[Senators] and their staffs went to great lengths to acquaint the press in advance with the gravity of their findings. "Hell," says Rudman, "it was the first comprehensive rethinking of national security since Harry Truman in 1947."
The conclusions were startling. "States, terrorists and other disaffected groups will acquire weapons of mass destruction, and some will use them. Americans will likely die on American soil, possibly in large numbers."
Hart told me: "We got a terrific sense of the resentment building against the US as a bully which alarmed us." The report was a devastating indictment of the "fragmented and inadequate" structures and strategies to prevent and then respond to the attacks the commissioners predicted on US cities. Hart specifically mentioned the lack of readiness to respond to "a weapon of mass destruction in a highrise building".
Despite being far more in touch with the real world than the Bush administration, Hart-Rudman failed to do a very basic thing: It failed to look back at the preceding era — the era since 1947 — and assess the successes and failures, particularly the tragic failure of Vietnam, which was obviously connected to the national security framework developed under Truman.
This failure is all the more striking, given how much more thought the commission gave to making sweeping organizational changes in five key areas:
- ensuring the security of the American homeland;
- recapitalizing America's strengths in science and education;
- redesigning key institutions of the Executive Branch;
- overhauling the U.S. government personnel system; and
- reorganizing Congress's role in national security affairs.
Under the first topic, the Hart-Rudman vision of a National Homeland Security Agency (NHSA) was both carefully-tailored and constitutionally conceived:
NHSA would be built upon the Federal Emergency Management Agency, with the three organizations currently on the front line of border security -- the Coast Guard, the Customs Service, and the Border Patrol -- transferred to it. NHSA would not only protect American lives, but also assume responsibility for overseeing the protection of the nation's critical infrastructure, including information technology. ... The legal foundation for the National Homeland Security Agency would rest firmly within the array of Constitutional guarantees for civil liberties.
For all this clear-sighted thinking and more -- including recommendations for revitalizing science and technology education, and "doubling the federal research and development budget by 2010"-- the report never pulled back to look at America from a world historical perspective. It never abandoned the elite version of the assumptions of American exceptionalism, and never looked back to see what sorts of mistakes we had made the last time such a sweeping analysis had taken place. How could we possibly hope to avoid making the very same sorts of mistakes over and over?
What we really needed was a much more profound examination of where our national weaknesses lie, and for that, we can turn to Mahmood Mamdani, a Uganda-born multidisciplinary professor at Columbia University, whose 2004 book, "Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror," remains one of the clearest guides to understanding where the war on terror came from. It grew out of much more compact essay written in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.
In 1985, Mamdani noted, Ronald Reagan met with a group of Afghani leaders of the Mujaheddin, and introduced them to the media as "the moral equivalents of America's founding fathers." These are the “Good Muslims” of American political discourse. Backing up to explain their emergence, Mamdani points back to 1975. The U.S. finally, decisively lost the Vietnam War, and the Portuguese African empire collapsed. “It was the year the center of gravity of the Cold War shifted from Southeast Asia to Southern Africa,” Mamdani observes. “The question was: who would pick up the pieces of the Portuguese empire, the U.S .or the Soviet Union?”
It also marked a shift in American strategy to the Nixon Doctrine — adopted by necessity in response to massive draft resistance — that "Asian boys must fight Asian wars," which in practice meant “a US decision to harness, or even to cultivate, terrorism” against perceived pro-Soviet regimes.
In Southern Africa, this meant a partnership with apartheid South Africa under the rubric of "constructive engagement," a typically Reaganite phrase. This partnership supported terrorist movements of a type never seen before in Africa -- Renamo in Mozambique, and Unita in Angola — which “sought specifically to kill and maim civilians, but not all of them. Always, the idea was to leave a few to go and tell the story, to spread fear,” with the object of paralyzing the enemy government.
During the next decade, the Cold War’s central focus shifted to Central America, along with U.S.-sponsored terrorism: “The Contras were not only tolerated and shielded by official America; they were actively nurtured and directly assisted, as in the mining of harbors.” (There was also a tolerance of drug-running, not mentioned by Mamdani, which further underscores the degree to which utter lawlessness was tolerated, even when it directly undermined other American goals.)
This “was the major context in which Afghanistan policy was framed,” Mamdani writes, but not the only one. There was also the Iranian revolution of 1979, a long-delayed response to our 1953 overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddegh. Rather than take responsibility for our past anti-democratic meddling, Reagan doubled down for a new round:
The grand plan of the Reagan administration was two-pronged. First, it drooled at the prospect of uniting a billion Muslims around a holy war, a Crusade, against the evil empire. I use the word Crusade, not Jihad, because only the notion of Crusade can accurately convey the frame of mind in which this initiative was taken. Second, the Reagan administration hoped to turn a religious schism inside Islam, between minority Shia and majority Sunni, into a political schism. Thereby, it hoped to contain the influence of the Iranian Revolution as a minority Shia affair.
And so “an American/Saudi/Pakistani alliance was forged, and religious madresas turned into political schools for training cadres,” creating the first armed Jihad the Islamic world had seen in several centuries: "The CIA created the Mujaheddin and Bin Laden as alternatives to secular nationalism. Just as, in another context, the Israeli intelligence created Hamas as an alternative to the secular PLO."
Mamdani goes to consider the question of responsibility, contrasting the end of World War II with the end of the Cold War. World War II left the U.S .physically unscathed, aside from Pearl Harbor, while Europe was devastated. The question of responsibility for postwar reconstruction arose as a political question of necessity, more than a moral one, producing the Marshall Plan as a defense against the appeal of appeal of communism.
The Cold War, similarly, left America physically untouched. It was fought in Asia, Southern Africa and Central America. “Should we, ordinary humanity, hold official America responsible for its actions during the Cold War?” Mamdani asks. Afghanistan was particularly devastated by our decision to turn it into a battlefield:
Out of a population of roughly 15 million, a million died, another million and a half were maimed, and another five million became refugees. Afghanistan was a brutalized society even before the present war began.
There was no political reason forcing America’s hand this time:
After the Cold War and right up to September 10 of this year, the US and Britain compelled African countries to reconcile with terrorist movements. The demand was that governments must share power with terrorist organizations in the name of reconciliation - as in Mozambique, in Sierra Leone, and in Angola. ... Like Afghanistan, are these countries hosting terrorism, or are they also hostage to terrorism? I think both.
Of course, America requires a way of justifying itself, which Mamdani sums up neatly:
America was built on two monumental crimes: the genocide of the Native American and the enslavement of the African American. The tendency of official America is to memorialize other peoples' crimes and to forget its own - to seek a high moral ground as a pretext to ignore real issues.
He wrote those words shortly after 9/11. Sixteen years later, it makes sense to regard what’s happened since as a natural consequence of the forces already in play as he described. Seeking reconciliation with terrorists is mandatory for some, but unthinkable for us — or for anyone allied with us intimately enough. So there has been virtually no learning curve, no progress toward finding an end to the War on Terror — except for Obama dropping the name — for the simple reason that our political elites have no interest in seeing it end. After all, they get to play the good guys forever, regardless of how many people they kill. What could be better than that?
Elite political discourse is strategically fragmented. But it’s not difficult to see how certain fragments fit together, challenging the official line. The Black Lives Matter movement has profoundly challenged the forgetting of one of America’s monumental crimes. It’s no accident that now, as a spin-off consequence, there’s a serious movement to start taking down monuments that celebrate that historical crime. But the core of the movement is confronting oppression in people’s everyday lives: legalized, systematized, official use of terror on a daily basis.
That confrontation resonates with others as well — with immigrants (especially Dreamers), with Muslims, with virtually all of the "Resistance." At the same time, the worldwide struggle against climate change has recently brought Native Americans once again to the fore, most notably at Standing Rock in their fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline, where paramilitary “counterterrorism” tactics were used to wage war against peaceful protesters. These struggles taking place within America’s borders hold the seeds for restructuring our relationship with the rest of the world.
In an essay in the "Peaceful Tomorrows" book he edited, David Potorti wrote:
I frequently ask myself about the work of Peaceful Tomorrows: Does it matter? Does an act of solidarity with a Muslim group, a gesture of kindness to a kid in Afghanistan, or a show of unity with Japanese atomic bomb survivors really mean anything? Who benefits from those connections? And what changes?
The answer, in most cases, is me. I change. And in doing so, I begin to achieve the change I want to see in the world. ...
Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, notes, "When we train young people every day to kill, the damage is deep. They have known anger, they bear scars for many years. These kinds of wounds last for a long time and are transmitted to future generations. We cannot imagine the long-term effects of watering so many seeds of war."
We can also plant the seeds of peace, and nurture them, deliberately, because in the end I believe we have a choice to create the world we want to live in. So much of what we are told today, particularly about the "war on terrorism," is that we have no choices. This is a lie. Individuals have choices. Nations have choices. Freedom is about having choices, and when we stop having choices, we stop being free.
The aim of terror is to cripple people’s will, cripple their spirit, cripple their sense of being free to choose anything at all. You cannot fight a war on terror by further crippling people in exactly the same manner, no matter what reasons you claim. Any such war only feeds terror further, only makes it ever stronger.
The idea that we have no choice lies at the very core of the “war on terror” ideology: Iraq we can argue about, but in Afghanistan, we had no choice. That was the big lie that Families for Peaceful Tomorrows tried to stand against, and history stands against it too. We always have choices, unless we choose to ignore them.