The Disaster of the American Response to 9/11

Ten years ago, in the wake of the destruction of 9/11, my friend Mark Anderson of Strategic News Service (SNS) asked his subscribers to offer their suggestions for an intelligent response to the challenge of global terrorism.  At the time, Americans were frightened and sad about the tragedy of 9/11, and the US government was moving rapidly toward the only reponse George Bush and many others could imagine: an armed invasion of Afghanistan with the intention of rooting out and obliterating Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. 

I wrote Mark a letter in September, 2001 with my own suggestions, and the letter was printed in SNS along with many others. A few days later, on October 7th, 2001, the US armed forces invaded Afghanistan. Over $400 billion, 2,000 dead US combatants, and tens of thousancds of Afghan casualties later, the result has been on of the most senseless, brutal, bloody, and pointless wars in American history. The gains of the US are remarkably fragile; Afghan society is now more violent and insecure than at any point in the past decade; and it is easy to see how the Afghan government may fall to the Taliban after the US leaves in two years.

Here is the letter I wrote after 9/11. The advice it contains continues to strike me as wise.

Dear Mark,

It would be remarkably short-sighted to only ask how we might disrupt and/or destroy an international terrorist network. It implies that the solution is essentially military -- responding with a strategy and set of tactics designed to identify and remove an immediate military threat. If that’s as far as our thinking goes, I’m afraid we’ll forever be vulnerable to attacks like those of September 11, if not by bin Laden’s network then by somebody else’s.

The most obvious damage done by the attacks of September 11 was the destruction of human lives and property. The scale of the damage might be hard to grasp, but it was blatant, horrific, and endlessly replayed by the media. The more profound and less recognizable damage was to the fabric of our entire culture, to our sense of right and wrong, to our ability to think carefully and holistically about how to prevent further such attacks. This deeper damage manifests itself now in suspicion, fear, and hatred of those in our midst who look “foreign,” or “Middle Eastern,” or vaguely “Islamic.” It reveals itself in a fever for actions of war, favored by a majority of Americans, as polls show, if even such actions result in the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians. It raises the specter that we might now willingly commit our own crimes of war, thus launching the endless cycle of violence and murder we see played out in Palestine and Israel.

So here are the components of an intelligent response:

  • Stop using the metaphor of war to describe what is in fact an international criminal investigation with the aim of apprehending the perpetrators, destroying their network, and interdicting further attacks. Wars are fought with guns, planes, bombs, ships, and massive troop deployments. This struggle will require quite different tools and tactics.
  • Target precisely and eliminate the criminals who are perpetrators of this act, and view all others as fellow victims and potential allies. Every innocent victim we ourselves create as ‚Äúcollateral damage‚Äù will provoke a thousand would-be terrorists.
  • Remove the soil from which hatred, resentment, and terror grow, by working for social and economic justice around the world. In the past year, private aid agencies budgeted only $138 million for relief in Afghanistan, 80% of which paid for staff and overhead. What might be the political effect of a US-supported Marshall Plan for places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Palestine?
  • Shift from our current uncritical and whole-hearted support for the state of Israel to a disciplined support for reviving the peace process, and holding both parties accountable for its success.
  • Move against Islamic terrorists only in company and with the broad support of the Islamic world.

Look carefully at a photograph of Osama bin Laden, and you will see a man in whose eyes is reflected extraordinary calmness, patience, and an unearthly peace. I wonder if we now have the grace, wisdom, skill and intelligence to destroy this man and the evil he symbolizes without betraying ourselves and abrogating our deepest values.