Friday, September 11, 2009

An Eight Year Reflection

Today marks the 8th anniversary of the very tragic, horrific, and surprising attacks that on occured on September 11th, 2001. Not since Pearl Harbor had America had such a jolt to our collective sense of security and military standing in the world. My heart sincerely goes out to all of those who lost someone or who has lost someone in the War on Terrorism since.

There comes a time in the mourning process where, after going through the motions of anger and denial, that we need to reflect on what the loss means. I was not personally affected by 9/11, but at the same time I was. I did not lose a family member or a friend, but I did lose a sense of security that I know most Americans held dearly close. I recall shedding tears in the days that followed as I saw American flags draped over highway overpasses on 295 between Baltimore, MD and Washington, DC or when I watched replayed clips of the towers falling and the panic that was occurring on the ground.

It almost seemed surreal, and I think it was the reality of the situation - that I was not watching a movie - that affected me most. In a movie you know no one is ACTUALLY hurt. The World Trade Center towers falling would be merely a special effect, either done in a scaled model or completely on computers. The people running for their lives would be actors, who would either collect their cash for being an extra and go on with their normal lives or return to their trailer after getting lunch from craft-services. But this was real. To this date, I still have trouble watching those scenes of sheer terror. The looks on peoples faces cannot be replicated in a movie. The scenes of the firefighters covered entirely in dust in the fallout regions of the NYC streets were like nothing I have ever seen before. Then there were the bulletin boards that went up all over the city with pictures, names, and phone numbers with the simple intent that someone just wanted to hear a loved one's voice, or just to have confirmation of what they either feared to be true or had faith had not occurred.

I was 20 years old. Too old to not understand, but too young to have seen death on that scale - in America - before. In the days that followed, the welled up sense of patriotism in my heart and mind lead me to want to seek vengeance. We had so much good-will built up in the international community as many countries joined us in solidarity. Being mindful of international politics even before taking a class, I had mentioned to friends on 9/11 that I thought Osama bin Laden likely had some part to play. When reports started coming in about the Taliban and their complicity in the events with bin Laden I thought, "We've got to get those fuckers!"

In this way, I understand where people are coming from when they imagine an enemy that needs to be obliterated and sent back to Hell, figuratively or literally speaking. However, over the past eight years, I've grown callous to the machismo/bravado-laced arguments for foreign policy by force. We sit, eight years later, without Osama bin Laden in our custody (if he is even still alive), fighting two separate wars (and not a single war on two fronts), and piles of military debt, both literally in the gross amounts of money spent on both wars and figuratively in the service that many Americans have given to our country. There is no doubt in my mind that our service-people, though still trudging through Iraq and Afghanistan with a pep in their step, are growing weary. Sons and daughters want their mommy or daddy back home. Wives and husbands, girlfriends and boyfriends want their significant others to not have to be redeployed.

Taxpayers want answers and results. The weak case for Iraq was for the protection of America from weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), though it seemed much less weak at the time. I was taking an international politics course at the time of the lead-up to the Iraq war, so I was intimately aware of the history of Iraq and the entire Middle East, particularly in the past half century, focused primarily on Saddam Hussein's rule. I saw the merits in the arguments for and against the war and was ultimately not convinced by George W. Bush's speech, but rather Tony Blair's speech to the House of Commons. Here we sit, still in Iraq, working to rebuild the infrastructure we destroyed while looking for the unfound WMDs and then rooting out the insurgents we attracted to the region. And people have the audacity to intone the losses incurred on 9/11 to continue to pursue this costly venture, as if somehow we are going to break the mold of the colloquial definition of insanity - doing the same thing and expecting different results.

The War on Terrorism is a war that is nothing like what we have fought before; it is a battle of ideologies. Surely, comparisons can be drawn between this war and the Cold War purely by the fact that it was a war against an opposing ideology - Communism - fought largely on the basis of containing and eliminating said ideology, but beyond that is where comparisons fall flat. In the Cold War our enemies were states or nation-states; the USSR, Cuba, North Vietnam, North Korea, etc. Now we are dealing with nations of people. People who are not necessarily tied to their country of origin as much as they are to the ideals of radical Islam. This makes the identification, location, and extraction of any of these terrorists quite precarious. We need the world on board with us in order to achieve capture and elimination, but we have lost a lot of the good-will that was generated post-9/11.

I would never wish another 9/11 on America, but I fear that in our attempts to prevent an event of this magnitude and horror we are almost asking for it. We have done nothing to address the root causes of terrorism; it's like saying we are going to fix a leaky pipe by collecting the water, getting rid of it and continuing to replace the bucket - it's not fixing the pipe itself. That does not mean I have all of the answers, nor do I have concrete suggestions on how to address the root causes. I'll leave that up to the policy makers who have had many more classes and much more experience on these matters. I think the Obama administration is making the right moves in trying to address the War on Terror more diplomatically, but there is a great deal of damage that has already been done thanks to Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Rice. Their assertions that "might is right" and the fundamental belief that we are free from reproach carried with it a sense of arrogance overseas and there is no better example of their reckless ideology than what occurred at Abu Graib prison.

We have to ask ourselves, despite the money spent and despite the increase in government (Department of Homeland Security - an increase in government that was not bemoaned at all by Republicans or town-hall meetings with enraged citizens), are we any safer than we were on that fateful September morning? If based solely on appearances and rhetoric, I think most would resoundingly say, "Absolutely," but appearances and words can be funny like that. Sure, we are more AWARE of the dangers that can befall us, after all, we have our nifty terror alert color scheme. We are more AWARE of who would seek to harm our country and our people. But does that make us any more adept at preventing a tragedy such as 9/11 to catch us by surprise again? Arguably, I would say no, because we, "the West", are over there as "the Infidel" making few in-roads in trying to understand the causes of terrorism and how to prevent or at least minimize its multiplication.

And at the risk of being accused of being anti-Semitic, which is quite often the case if this argument is made, I think much of the detestation of the US in the Middle East stems from our unwavering support of Israel. Again, it all boils down to the collective US belief that "might is right" and Western-style democracy is free from reproach, as if Israel does not have a part to play in the attacks from the Palestinians. For the record, I believe both sides act like petulant children, but we sometimes need to ask ourselves in the US: "How would I feel if my land were taken from me?" or "How would I feel if I were forced to live in a ghetto (i.e. the refugee camps), where few economic opportunities were extended to me simply because of my ethnicity?" Then we may begin, at least, to understand the birth of Palestinian terrorism - which may translate somewhat to the birth of Islamic terrorism, something we've really only largely experienced since the 1960's.

In conclusion, I hope our leaders (in both political parties) take a moment today to reflect on the dramatic changes in our reality that September 11th spawned. I hope that they understand that we cannot go this alone. Finally, I hope that we continue to make strides in removing ourselves from Iraq - a war in which we should never have been involved - and focusing our efforts on making permanent changes in Afghanistan (and perhaps Pakistan) that could help change the ideological landscape of those two breeding grounds of radical Islam.

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